A typical cruise ship, which carries about 3,000 passengers including staff, has the waste disposal problems of a small town.
In an analysis from environmental group Oceana, compiled from reports by the Environmental Protection Agency and the cruise industry, we learn that a typical cruise ship can produce up to 30,000 gallons of sewage a day. This so-called “black water” may or may not be treated before being dumped into the oceans. A ship also generates daily more than 200,000 gallons of “gray water” from laundries, showers, kitchens and engine operations. Add to that oily bilge and ballast water, a stream of plastic bottles and other incidental debris, multiply the output by the number of ships plying the oceans, imagine these ships entering fragile coastline and reef ecosystems, and you begin to get the nature of the problem.
This kind of pollution has been linked to shellfish bed closures, coral reef destruction, the death of marine animals, oxygen-depleted dead zones that wipe out native marine species, beachwater contamination and harmful algae blooms.
Cruise ships and their parent companies have long operated beyond much public scrutiny and the law. Cruise lines are exempt from the discharge permitting program of the nation’s Clean Water Act. Still, the industry has paid more than $40 million in fines since 1999 for violating the few federal laws that regulate them. Keep in mind that since 2001, the Coast Guard, the main policing agency of cruise lines, has been far more concerned with homeland security than monitoring ships’ operations.
Advanced wastewater treatment systems can cut levels of pollutants in black and gray water, but so far only one cruise line, Royal Caribbean, has agreed to install such equipment. Others have refused to do so, except in Alaska, where they are required to by state law.
The time may be near, however, when cruise lines will be held legally accountable for the wastes their ships discharge at sea.
Legislation introduced in the federal House and Senate this spring, known as the Clean Cruise Ship Act of 2004, calls for tighter restrictions on cruise ship emissions, installation of better onboard waste treatment systems, and closer monitoring of discharge practices. The Durbin Bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), represents the first time the federal government has attempted to regulate cruise ship pollution at the national level. It comes as public pressure intensifies against the booming cruise industry’s environmental practices.
In Florida, surprisingly enough, there are no state laws which specifically regulate the dumping of cruise ship pollutants. Ships’ practices here are governed by voluntary agreements, called Memorandums of Understanding, or MOUs, between the state and the cruise line associations, the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) and the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL).
The Florida MOU indicates that member cruise lines agree to discharge wastewater beyond Florida territorial waters, which extend three miles from shore. MOUs also stipulate that cruise ships will not discharge gray water in port, and only at a distance of four miles from shore. Beyond four miles, gray water can be dumped into the ocean without treatment. As for sewage, it can be dumped once treated, beyond three miles, while a ship is underway at a speed greater than six knots.
Beyond four miles, raw sewage can be dumped directly into the ocean.
Despite those lax standards and scant oversight, cruise lines continue to rack up impressive violations. In 2002, Carnival Cruise Lines pleaded guilty in South Florida to federal charges associated with improperly discharging oily bilge water and falsifying records. Discharge of oil is prohibited by federal law and international accord. The company agreed to pay $18 million in fines and enter five years
of probation. In August 2003, Carnival’s probation officer cited the company for violating the terms of that probation by filing false reports made by environmental-compliance employees. This March, Carnival Cruise Lines admitted that for the first three months of 2004, one of its chief engineers had been improperly processing bilge water on the ship Noordam, homeported in Tampa. That’s just Carnival, in South Florida. The scenario gets repeated around the country.
The Durbin Bill would codify discharge standards and give them teeth by supplying federal punishments for violations. Facets of the proposed law include a moratorium on ships discharging any waste, treated or untreated, within 12 miles of U.S. shores (versus the current 3-mile boundary law), installation of advanced, on-board wastewater treatment systems, and regular inspections of discharge operations and equipment. Any monitoring now comes at the agreement of the cruise lines. The bill would aim to reduce levels of fecal coliform and chlorine in sewage and gray water discharged beyond 12 miles, with the goal of eliminating pollutants from sewage and gray water by 2015. It would also implement whistleblower protection for employees who report their employers’ noncompliance.
While the Durbin Bill represents a huge step at the federal level, it still doesn’t address an aspect of the problem many say is critical to South Florida and the entire Caribbean basin: removal of harmful nutrients from wastewater.
DeeVon Quirolo, Executive Director of Reef Relief in Key West, explains:
“‘State of the art treatment’ of wastewater doesn’t usually include nutrient-removal. Corals need clear, clean nutrient-free waters to thrive, so it’s those nutrients that are most important to take out. The nutrient removal stipulation didn’t make it into the Durbin Bill. It’s a local application that would benefit the Caribbean basin far more than the rest of U.S. territorial waters.”
In Key West, Reef Relief and other organizations are working with the cruise industry and the city to hold ships accountable to the terms of an existing no-discharge zone that currently applies to smaller, private boats. The goal is to reduce levels of nutrient loading in Keys waters and other coral reef ports ships visit in the Caribbean.
“The ultimate solution,” Quirolo says, “would be for ships to install onboard treatment systems that eliminate pollution and nutrients and prepare the sewage for proper disposal.”
Quirolo and members of other ocean advocacy groups are optimistic that the introduction of the Durbin Bill marks a turning point in the regulation of the cruise industry. Environmental groups are rallying behind the bill for what promises to be a long, hard fight to get the bill out of House committees and up for a vote on its way to passage into law.
“It could take years, and we’re prepared for that fight,” says Dana DuBose, Cruise Pollution Campaign Director for Oceana, one of 30 environmental groups in a coalition supporting the bill. “Public pressure will help move the legislation through the House and Senate.”
Cruise line revenues have been rising steadily in recent years, and the major companies are adding to their fleets and expanding to new, often smaller ports. The industry brings tens of millions of dollars to South Florida, though no exact figure was available from the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, whose spokespeople were tight-lipped in response to questions. In Key West alone, where port calls b
y cruise ships have spiked in the last few years, cruise ships bring “a significant portion of the city’s operating budget,” says Dennis Grote, Budget Analyst for the City of Key West. In addition, each of the roughly one million cruise passengers who visit Key West this year spend a little cash at local businesses.
The battle to get cruise lines to clean up their act is rife with irony. Fines, limited as they are now, can cost companies more money over time than the installation of advanced wastewater treatment systems. So why wouldn’t companies voluntarily install those systems to help protect the number one asset they sell to their customers-the beauty of the seas?