Sewage-dumping ships cruising for regulation

Wednesday, May 21, 2003, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Guest columnists

By Erin Simmons, Fred Felleman and Chris Cain
Special to The Times

It does not bode well for Puget Sound and Washington’s coastal waters that Seattle’s very first cruise ship of the season, the Norwegian Sun, dumped 16,000 gallons of raw sewage in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Worse yet, dumping raw sewage is perfectly legal once a cruise ship is more than 3 miles from shore. With more than 100 cruise-ship visits scheduled for Seattle this year, how does this make you feel about fishing, boating, swimming and digging clams in Puget Sound?

In this instance, state regulators are investigating whether dumping in the Strait violated Washington’s water-pollution laws. Even if existing laws under state and federal jurisdictions aren’t entirely clear, an Oceana poll of cruise passengers shows that nearly 75 percent of respondents said they don’t want raw sewage dumped anywhere in the ocean.

In fact, Norwegian Cruise Line only reported this incident because it is on felony probation for illegal dumping and didn’t want to risk further penalties.

The International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry trade group of which Norwegian is a member, frequently boasts an environmental policy that supposedly requires all members to hold their treated sewage until they are 4 miles from shore and to hold raw sewage until they are 12 miles from shore.

These policies, however, are completely voluntary and not enforced. The public is therefore left in the frustrating position of having to trust an industry that continues to break environmental laws, with the two largest cruise companies having paid $50 million in fines in the past five years. Many of these fines pertain to the discharge of oil and other hazardous materials, as well as the falsifying of records. Since the industry frequently violates the few laws that do exist, why should it be trusted to go above and beyond the law when it comes to sewage dumping?

Cruise ships profit by taking people to our most pristine and beautiful ocean environments and yet they are legally and illegally dumping their wastes wherever they go. Waste water that includes toxic chemicals, as well as treated sewage, can be dumped anywhere, including right in port. This is particularly disturbing because the typical sewage-treatment technology used on most ships is grossly inadequate.

Fewer than a dozen cruise ships out of the more than 200 sailing the oceans have state-of-the-art treatment systems. The remaining ships have older systems that simply are not effective, if they are used at all.

According to the National Association of Attorneys General, 75 percent of the so-called “treated sewage” tested by the state of Alaska exceeded acceptable standards.

The good news is that sewage dumping is 100 percent preventable, as cost effective technologies exist. Yet, not a single cruise corporation has committed to fully upgrade its fleet to state-of-the-art technology. Instead, the companies tout their voluntary agreements, which have no monitoring, reporting or permitting requirements and which have proven to be unreliable. These agreements merely serve as a smokescreen, providing a false sense of security for passengers and the public.

The U.S. Coast Guard does not have the resources or inclination to ensure our oceans are protected from cruise-ship dumping. And in many cases — such as the recent example in Seattle — the Coast Guard claims it can do nothing because the dumping is purportedly legal.

A few states, including Alaska and California, have either passed or are considering passage of state laws that restrict cruise-ship pollution. We, along with Bluewater Network, Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters of Earth Island Institute, Go Wild PAC and other local citizen activists, challenge the Port of Seattle, state Department of Ecology and the Legislature to enact public policies that protect our oceans from cruise pollution, including requiring discharge permits for cruise ships that will ensure they meet the same water-quality standards required of every other industrial discharger.

Given the rapid expansion of this industry and the increasing size of many ships — some with more than 5,000 passengers and crew — the status quo of weak laws and lax enforcement is unacceptable.

The cruise industry must upgrade to advanced sewage-treatment systems fleetwide and treat sewage to much higher standards everywhere they sail. In addition, federal or state legislation is needed to set strict water-quality standards and rigorous monitoring procedures to ensure that cruise ships stop polluting our oceans and coastal waters.

Erin Simmons is West Coast organizer for Oceana, Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization working to restore and protect the world’s oceans. Fred Felleman is Northwest director of Seattle-based Ocean Advocates, which provides information on the oceans to policy makers in government, industry and academia. Chris Cain writes for the Port Observer in Seattle, focusing on workers rights, environmental protection, economic justice and actions of the Port of Seattle.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

~ by fredfelleman on May 21, 2003.

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