Port moves slowly on cruise sludge


No decision yet on truck offloading

Last updated January 20, 2008 10:43 p.m. PT


It has been nearly a year since the Port of Seattle Commission asked its staff to study how to offload sewage sludge from cruise ships, but the five-member elected board is barely closer to finding out what it needs to know to make that happen.

The port staff estimated last year that the average cruise ship setting sail to Alaska from Seattle produced 28,000 gallons of sewage sludge during its weeklong voyage, meaning that Seattle’s 150 Alaska-bound cruise ships produced 4.2 million gallons of sludge last year — enough to fill six Olympic-size swimming pools.

That’s not exactly the image that the cruise lines want to promote as passengers from all over the U.S. and the world descend on Seattle in airplanes, buses and cars with bags packed for a trip to see some of the most pristine country that the U.S. and Canada have to offer.

Eager to reap the economic benefits of having cruise lines fill their ships with supplies and people in Seattle, the port has been working aggressively to expand its cruise business and expects 211 sailings this year.

A 2007 study commissioned by the King County Council found that pumping the sludge into trucks, which would take it to Renton’s South Treatment Plant, is the best option for disposing of the fecal matter onshore.

In Stockholm and Bermuda, cruise ships hook up to a pipe to offload their sewage; locally, cruise ships collect the sewage and filter out the most solid parts, treating the strained liquid to levels similar to the results from King County’s West Point plant, and then dumping it into Puget Sound. The King County study estimated it would cost $3 million to install the pipes to pump sewage out of the cruise ships but did not recommend that option.

At issue is the rest of the story: Cruise ships wait until transiting the open ocean to dump the leftover sewage sludge, though some use other means for dealing with it.

King County has a program to reuse treated sludge as fertilizer spread on recovering forestlands and some nonfood farm crops. The port is planning to open a new $62 million cruise facility at Terminal 91 by 2009, tearing down the $18 million Terminal 30 building built in 2003 to convert that space into use by container ships. Environmentalists pushed the port to study what might be needed to offload the sludge before the new cruise terminal’s construction progresses too far to be able to accommodate sludge trucks in the future.

“It is a simple question: Is the apron wide enough to accommodate baggage, people and trucks?” asked Fred Felleman, the Northwest representative of Friends of the Earth, a nonprofit network of more than 1 million members.

“We don’t have to wait until the new terminal is open to find out if it is impossible.”

The port’s manager of seaport planning, Eric Hanson, said at a commission meeting Tuesday that the port had prioritized studying whether infrastructure such as piping was required rather than the space and equipment needed for trucks to pump sludge off the ships.

Some cruise ships have already offloaded sludge in Seattle using the trucks of private companies such as Emerald Services Inc. Last year, Royal Caribbean used trucks to suck out sewage three times at Pier 66, the port’s smallest cruise terminal, when the equipment its cruise ship uses to dry sludge failed.

Royal Caribbean dries the sludge “until it looks like coffee powder,” burns that and then brings the ashes ashore, said Rich Pruitt, the director of environmental and public health programs for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

The matter needs to be studied holistically, Pruitt said, to take into account what kind of air emissions would be produced to truck the sludge to Renton from the Seattle waterfront.

Commissioner Gael Tarleton said that other ports could benefit from any advances at the Port of Seattle, if it were able to study chemical or equipment alternatives to trucking the sludge to Renton that would treat the sludge to a level that doesn’t degrade the oceans.

Port of Seattle Chief Executive Tay Yoshitani has vowed to make the port the “cleanest, greenest and most energy efficient U.S. port.”

Environmentalists are concerned that the hormones and antibiotics contained in human waste are impacting marine mammals such as Puget Sound’s resident orcas, an endangered species. After the sewage sludge hits the propellers and fans out into the water, nutrient-deprived algae begins feeding on the sludge and growing, using up oxygen in the water that marine life needs.

One of the nutrients in cruise ship sewage that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found to be in excess of its water quality criteria is ammonia, which adds to the risk of fueling algal blooms and “dead” zones posed by cruise ships and their thousands of passengers’ waste.

Commissioner Bill Bryant asked the staff to study what is done in Scandinavian ports of call, given that the fjord environment approximates conditions in Puget Sound.

In Puget Sound, the NorthWest CruiseShip Association, the state Department of Ecology and the Port of Seattle have co-signed a memorandum of understanding, updated annually, that prohibits dumping of raw sewage within Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca south of the international boundary with Canada.

Under the agreement, cruise vessels can use advanced sewage treatment systems to strain the solid material from the raw sewage. Once that’s done, the rest is treated and can be discharged into the water within one nautical mile of the port berth while the ship is traveling at six knots.

Sewage sludge cannot be dumped closer than three miles from shore, according to U.S. law, but the cruise lines have agreed to international guidelines that prohibit sewage sludge dumping within 12 miles of shore.

“It may be 12 miles out, but when you’re in the ocean, and you know that, that is all you are thinking about,” said Jessica Tweedy of the Seattle office of the Surfrider Foundation, an international nonprofit founded to protect the world’s oceans and beaches. “People that are kayaking and surfing in the ocean and, in the Sound, are really paying attention to this issue.”

So is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was sued by Friends of the Earth in May for failing to respond to a petition filed seven years before asking it to assess and regulate cruise ship pollution. Subsequently, the EPA released a draft study of cruise ship waste in December that found treated sewage from cruise ships contained levels of chlorine, phthalates, ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc that greatly exceed the EPA’s water quality criteria, even after the sewage was processed by the most advanced systems.

Dumping treated sewage sludge laden with heavy metals and toxic chemicals into the ocean affects “the food web of the whole Pacific,” said Heather Trim of the environmental group People for Puget Sound. “It would be great to offload that [ashore] in Vancouver and Alaska, but we need to set the bar.”


The state Department of Ecology has scheduled a meeting with King County, the Port of Seattle and the ship cruise lines to discuss sludge disposal at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the port’s Pier 69 headquarters, 2711 Alaskan Way, Seattle.

P-I reporter Kristen Millares Young can be reached at 206-448-8142 or kristenyoung@seattlepi.com.

© 1998-2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

~ by fredfelleman on January 21, 2008.

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