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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

States struggle to curb pollution by cruise ships

Discharge rules, some voluntary, are easy to skirt

Lee Van Der Voo InvestigateWest

After a week aboard the Carnival Spirit, its passengers can’t help but hit the Seattle pier a little tired. They’re grinning too. With its 16 lounges and bars, 13 decks, three restaurants and four swimming pools, the Spirit offers quite an adventure for the 2,124 people on board.

Owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, the Spirit now docks weekly in Seattle’s Elliott Bay. It’s the biggest of the ships home-ported in Seattle in 2010, part of a burgeoning Alaska cruise market that’s expected to bring nearly 900,000 tourists through the city by October.

Cruising pumps about $16 million into state and local tax coffers annually and $1.7 million into the Seattle economy every time a ship docks there. But those benefits come at a cost. The very attractions that draw tourists to Alaska-bound ships, such as pristine sanctuary waters, marine wildlife and mountainous seascapes, can be harmed by pollution from cruise ships.

In a single day, the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates, passengers aboard a typical cruise ship will generate:

• 21,000 gallons of sewage

• One ton of garbage

• 170,000 gallons of wastewater from sinks, showers and laundry

• More than 25 pounds of batteries, fluorescent lights, medical wastes and expired chemicals

• Up to 6,400 gallons of oily bilge water from engines

• Four plastic bottles per passenger – about 8,500 bottles per day for the Carnival Spirit

Cruise ships incinerate between 75 and 85 percent of their garbage, according to the EPA in its 2008 study, contributing to smog in coastal communities and on the ocean. They also release incinerator ash and sewage sludge into the ocean. They contribute nutrients, metals, ammonia, pharmaceutical waste, chemical cleaners and detergent to deep marine environments from sewage treatment systems that either don’t work as planned or aren’t able to remove such substances, according to tests in Washington and Alaska, interviews with state officials, the EPA study, and information provided by the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. It’s legal to discharge untreated sewage in most areas of the United States farther than three miles from shore.

Cruise ships burn fuel, much of it a cheap grade, which will continue until new international fuel standards take effect in 2012. A 2005 study done by WashPIRG, a Washington state public interest advocacy group, estimates a 3,000-passenger ship generates the air pollution equivalent of more than 12,000 cars.

States including Washington and Alaska are making efforts to increase oversight of cruise ships and assess their impacts on local environments. Absent consistent federal and international regulations for cruise ships, however, they are creating a patchwork of regulatory and sometimes voluntary systems that allow operators to pick and choose what rules they comply with and where to discharge waste. The situation is pushing some problems related to cruise pollution farther out to sea, where bad actors can cruise out of sight of regulators.

‘Last under-regulated bastion’

InvestigateWest found that ships thought to be abiding by tough new standards in Alaska and voluntary Washington standards set out in a memorandum of understanding among the states, the Port of Seattle and the NorthWest CruiseShip Association actually aren’t following all those rules, instead legally dumping waste in Canadian waters between the two states.

“The maritime business is sort of like the last under-regulated bastion of the corporate world,” said Fred Felleman, the northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group concerned with pollution from cruise ships.

Environmentalists criticize Washington for not having teeth behind its clean cruising rules, and state regulators wish the rules weren’t largely voluntary.

“Ecology would prefer something that is a more enforceable mechanism,” said Amy Jankowiak, who oversees the cruise ship water quality program for the Washington Department of Ecology.

The cruise ship industry is keenly aware of the need for a greener image and promotes recycling efforts and encourages burning cleaner fuels and boosting the efficiency of sewage and “gray water” treatment systems.

Passengers on the Carnival Spirit said the ship’s crew put heavy emphasis on reuse.

“One thing I noticed was that (the ship) didn’t have any paper towels,” said Nora Sheetz, a California resident. “No disposable cups either. It seemed like (the crew) was reusing everything.”

The Port of Seattle now offers hookups that allow ships to connect to power while in port, curbing air pollution from running engines. John Hansen, president of the Northwest CruiseShip Association, said with these efforts, the effects of pollution from cruise ships are likely not at issue.

Most ships discharge in Canadian waters

Felleman and others say discharges from cruise ships pose particular threat to closed environments like the Puget Sound, where a lack of circulation can allow nutrients to mix with pollution from land, producing algae. Cruise ship discharges – even from the best water treatment systems – are high in ammonia, bacteria and some pollutants, in part due to waste from their low-flush toilets, a congressional report shows.

And water, unlike land, doesn’t observe strict borders. Discharges in one territory’s waters can and do affect marine life and ocean health in another’s.

While federal law says sewage treatment facilities on cruise ships must only meet standards for marine sanitation devices laid out by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1976, Washington and Alaska require participating cruise ships to meet stringent water quality standards, which call for higher quality sewage treatment than is typically available on land. They also require that gray water from sinks, showers, laundry, dishwashing and swimming pools be treated to the highest possible standard.

Rather than meet the difficult standards for discharging waste in Washington’s waters, most ships don’t apply and simply discharge in Canadian waters. Only Norwegian Cruise Line’s two ships applied for and met the Washington standards this year, with 10 other ships on the circuit opting to meet Canada’s lesser standards.

Canadian rules set no standards for gray water. Canadian inspectors also don’t test waste discharged from cruise ships for pollutants as inspectors in Alaska and Washington do.

About half the cruise ships that visit Alaska choose to discharge only outside of Alaskan waters because either their advanced wastewater systems aren’t operational or they want to avoid the sampling requirements, extra paperwork or potential fines for violations of the tougher rules adopted in 2000 and recently updated, said Ed White of Alaska’s enforcement program.

Washington state’s voluntary agreement doesn’t apply to ships that aren’t members of the NorthWest CruiseShip Association, an omission that last year allowed two large ships to operate without oversight in Washington waters.

Federal legislation, sponsored by Seattle Rep. Jim McDermott and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, whose state borders the Great Lakes cruising mecca, aims to amend the Clean Water Act to prohibit cruise ship discharge within 12 miles of the coast and set new standards on discharges within 200 miles of the coast.

“Most people think the ocean can absorb anything,” McDermott said. “Nobody is totally to blame. But cruise ships play an important role.”

InvestigateWest is a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Seattle. Find out more at InvestigateWest reporter Katie Farden contributed to this report.