Northeast harbors have long-held reputations as pollution hotspots owing to their industrial history, with sediments steeped for decades in toxins and trace chemicals.

There are longstanding public health advisories warning against eating fish and crabs out of the New York-New Jersey harbor complex, with its burden of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dioxin – a byproduct of the Agent Orange herbicide that poisoned Vietnam veterans – discharged by manufacturing plants many years ago.

After four decades of the Clean Water Act, in terms of water quality, the harbor has gotten so much cleaner that anglers catch striped bass in sight of Manhattan’s towers, and conservation groups are seeding New York waters with oysters to make the water even better.

But air quality is another matter for people who live around port areas. With bigger post-Panamax ships coming, more cargo will be moving through, and that means more engine exhaust. There is pressure on regulators to do something about it. As the Washington Post reported, “Ports are the new power plants.”

It’s not just vessels in the harbor, but the trucks and trains that handle containers in the intermodal junctions around Port Newark, N.J., and other locations. Emissions from truck traffic are such an issue in the New York City boroughs that city planners think the answer in fact is more vessel traffic – renovating Brooklyn’s marine terminals, and using cleaner burning and more efficient barge traffic to shuttle cargo and reduce the need for trucks around the region.

Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began its drive to phase in cleaner-burning marine engines, the workboat industry has been making strides using newer power technology like liquefied natural gas (LNG) and hybrid electric drives. Those changes may be slowed a little for now in the U.S., as cheap oil takes some urgency away from retiring older, less efficient vessels. But in Europe, the conversion is further along.

That process could be sped with findings that a surprising percentage of northern Europe’s air pollution burden comes from shipping.

Yet water transport remains a highly efficient mode in energy expended per mile. The workboat industry will have a big role to play in the next phase of reducing pollution and expanding energy efficiency.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.