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Cruising Through the Waste Stream

by Jim Little
Summer 2006

One of the cruise ship industry’s more luxurious vessels, the 940-passenger Crystal Harmony, dazzles upscale guests with all the amenities – from butler service to inspired cuisines to high-end, onboard shopping. But cruise ships themselves are also guests, and like some of their own passengers they’ve been known to misbehave. So when the Crystal Harmony relieved itself prematurely during a 2002 call to the port of Monterey, California, it wasn’t invited back.

The Harmony’s owners had signed a voluntary agreement with the city of Monterey not to discharge any waste inside the sensitive bay, whose waters are protected as a National Marine Sanctuary. Yet 14 miles offshore, the vessel expelled some 36,400 gallons of wastewater. Its transgression didn’t surface until five months later and, although the discharge was considered legal, it violated the memorandum of understanding that Crystal Cruises had signed with the city.

The cruise line apologized and held to account those responsible. But because ship operators had not been forthcoming, the city council took the unanimous and unprecedented step of banning the Harmony forever and all other ships in the Crystal line for the next 15 years.

According to the oceans advocacy group Bluewater Network, from 1993 to 2003 cruise ships committed more than 300 acts of dumping oil, garbage, hazardous waste, sewage and gray water, violated air pollution laws, damaged coral reefs, and falsified environmental records. For their offenses – some intentional, some accidental – cruise ship operators paid more than $80 million in fines and restitution.

Industry critics say lax regulations, disparate jurisdictions, toothless enforcement, lack of scientific baselines, the absence of monitoring and the efforts of a powerful and connected cruise line industry lead to sloppy practices that are taking a cumulative toll on the marine environment – particularly near the coasts.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, an independent body convened by Congress in 2000 and appointed by President Bush to study and make recommendations on all aspects of ocean and coastal policy, said that the industry can and should do a better job of handling its waste. The commission cited as a particular concern the “cumulative environmental impacts caused when cruise ships repeatedly visit the same environmentally sensitive areas.”

Cruise ships these days are like floating cities, the largest of which carry some 5,000 passengers. In a single week, that many people can generate up to 210,000 gallons of sewage. Showers, sinks, pools, hot tubs, kitchens and laundry facilities add an estimated 1.5 million gallons of gray water. Onboard beauty salons, dry cleaners and photo-processing facilities contribute hazardous waste, which is illegal to dump anywhere. There’s also garbage and food waste, oil-contaminated water from the engine room, bilge water from the hull and, along coasts with few cars, air emissions from ship exhaust that are tantamount to thousands of automobile trips.

These wastes can contain pathogens, harmful nutrients, chlorine, metals, hydrocarbons, invasive species and sulfur, among other elements, that despoil ocean waters and their inhabitants.

“Most people who go on a cruise ship would be horrified, I think, to find out what the ship is dumping into the water,” says Jessica Schafer, press secretary for Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA). Schafer’s boss is cosponsor of the Clean Cruise Ship Act, federal legislation he and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) have proposed that would ban all cruise ship dumping of sewage, gray water or bilge water within 12 miles of the nation’s coastlines and in the Great Lakes. It would also establish uniform treatment standards for sewage discharges outside of 12 miles, and require better inspection and monitoring of cruise ship waste. Not surprisingly, Congressman Farr’s district includes Monterey Bay.

The cruise ship industry is growing full-speed. About 200 cruise ships currently operate worldwide, approximately 70 percent from U.S. ports. In 1970, they carried about 500,000 passengers from North America. By 2001, there were 8.6 million. Growth is expected to continue at a similar rate in coming years.

While the industry is quick to point out that its discharges amount to only a fraction of the waste released into the ocean by onshore sources, it also cruises through a huge loophole in the Clean Water Act that onshore dischargers do not. The exemption allows cruise ships, and all other vessels, to discharge sewage, effluent from properly functioning marine engines, laundry, shower and galley sink wastes or any other discharge without a federal permit, as long as it’s at least three miles offshore. Discharging within three miles of shore is even permitted, as long as it’s deemed “incidental to the normal operation of a vessel.”

“The cruise ship industry is the largest unregulated discharger into U.S. waters,” says Gershon Cohen, project director with Earth Island Institute. “Since 1979, they have been hiding under an exemption that was intended for fishing vessels and cargo ships, not floating cities. We maintain that discharges from cruise ships are not incidental to the normal operation of the vessel.”

Cohen, who holds a PhD in environmental policy, has lived in Haines, Alaska, for the last 23 years. His town is one of several along Alaska’s Inside Passage, a popular cruise ship itinerary. Cohen says the Inside Passage sees up to 35 cruise ships a day, every day, all summer long.

Cohen and others in Alaska have gathered 29,000 signatures to qualify a state ballot initiative for the 2006 general election that would require cruise ships to get state discharge permits, meet all state water-quality standards, establish onboard monitoring programs with independent marine engineers, and implement an industry tax to help defray the costs of cruise-related infrastructure impacts. If passed, the Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative would constitute the most stringent set of rules governing cruise ship discharge practices anywhere to date.

Nobody denies that it’s a challenging and costly business to reduce, reuse and dispose of waste in a manner that doesn’t harm the world’s oceans and the life that depends on clean seas. But the technology exists to do so, and critics say the cruise ship industry, which generates approximately $30 billion a year in direct and indirect spending, certainly has the money. Like so many things, it’s a matter of cost, political will and the desire to do the right thing.

Michael Crye is president of the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), an industry group that represents 16 of the largest cruise companies owning 117 ships. A retired Coast Guard captain and self-described environmentalist, Crye says that his members meet and exceed the standards of international treaties, as well as federal and state laws in handling their waste. He adds that they have committed themselves to minimizing discards, discharging their waste in a responsible manner, and identifying and adopting new technologies to lighten the load on the world’s oceans.

Crye acknowledges that mistakes have been made and that some cruise ship operators have cut corners, and says he expects there will be more of the same in the future. But overall, he says, the “industry is embracing its environmental responsibilities in a way that makes sense economically and with the best advice we can obtain.”

Despite industry efforts, however, those who seek to protect the world’s oceans from cruise ship discharges say that the regulations are not stringent enough and that enforcement is at best spotty. International treaties governing vessel discharges were crafted by the industry, they say, and since 95 percent of cruise ships fly foreign flags, they operate with virtually no oversight and are hard to inspect even when they come into U.S. waters. Until higher uniform standards can be enacted and routinely enforced, they look to cruise ship customers as probably the best hope for change.

“You should be able to enjoy a cruise without feeling like you’re hurting the environment,” says Congressman Farr’s press secretary, Jessica Schafer. “We have the technology, we know where the pollution is coming from, and passengers would probably be happy to pay an extra 10 bucks to take care of it.”

About the Author
From sewage outfalls to septic tanks, urban creeks to storm drains, Patagonia Managing Editor Jim Little became familiar with many sources of marine pollution while covering the environmental beat for the Santa Barbara Independent. Having lived most of his life within a couple miles of the ocean, he’s picked up enough trash, stepped in enough oil, and experienced enough beach closures to know definitively that dilution is not the solution to pollution.