Pollution Overboard

Pollution Overboard

Cruise ship pollution has been on the agenda of environmentalists and human rights monitors for some time. Are governments and companies finally taking the issue on board?

Off the coast of Jamaica, a cruise ship owned by a multinational travel company disgorges its waste into the sea. Effluent, cooking oils and other materials are dumped. The United Nations wants the practice stopped because of the damage it says it causes to vital biodiversity and the economic viability and quality of life of residents of the region.

Recent reports from the U.N. Environment Program say pollution from cruise ships is a leading threat to the health and welfare of the islands of the Caribbean. With most cruise ship traffic in the region originating in the U.S., meaningful reforms, experts say, will also have to begin there.

Stricter legislation in the U.S., experts say, would force cruise lines to fundamentally alter onboard pollution-control practices, spreading the benefit of the improvements to all waters the ships operate in, including those of the Caribbean.

A Really Big Problem

Cruise ships bring 14.5 million tourists to the Caribbean each year. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in just one week, a 3,000-passenger cruise ship generates 210,000 gallons of "black water" or raw sewage; a million gallons of "grey water," including runoff from showers, sinks and dishwashers; and 37,000 gallons of bilge water contaminated with invasive species and toxic wastes.

Cruise ships also generate nearly seven metric tons of solid rubbish and emit exhaust equivalent to 12,240 cars daily.

Ship pollution is blamed for a variety of environmental effects in the Caribbean, including contaminated drinking water, damage to coral reefs, increased pressure on endangered species and poor air quality.

But waste from these floating cities is exempt from or subject to only lax regulation under the U.S. Clean Water Act's point source permitting system.

The Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy both concluded in recent analyses that the oceans were reaching a state of crisis and the U.S. must significantly revise its policies.

A Variety of Solutions from Governments

The Clean Cruise Ship Bill would make wastewater treatment equipment mandatory, ban the discharge of sewage and grey water within 12 miles of the U.S. coastline, and authorize the Coast Guard and EPA to develop and enforce these new standards. It stalled in the last U.S. Congress and awaits reintroduction.

But individual states and the industry are moving ahead to curb pollutants.
Alaska and Maine allow the discharge of sewage and grey water only if the effluent meets state cleanliness standards.

California recently enacted bills banning the release of treated and untreated sewage and grey water in state waters and prohibiting onboard garbage incineration in state waters.

And Florida, Hawaii and Washington have signed agreements with cruise companies prohibiting the discharge of waste in state waters, although environmental activists say such agreements are difficult to enforce.

Some cruise lines are also adopting voluntary pollution controls.

Royal Caribbean, which paid $18 million in fines related to 21 felony counts of violating water pollution laws and covering their tracks in 1999, is installing advanced water treatment plants on 29 of its vessels by 2008. The company expects its competitors will follow suit.

And Princess Cruise Lines has launched a program with the ports of Seattle and Juneau to reduce its harbor air emissions by plugging its ships in to land-based electricity supplies at dockside rather than running diesel-powered generators while in port. A similar system is used by cargo vessels in Long Beach, California.

Policy experts say such voluntary action by the industry is welcome news. Even under the current inadequate regulations, more than $50 million in fines, in addition to those against Royal Caribbean in 1999, have been handed out to other cruise lines, including Carnival, since 1993 for illegal dumping.

Today, most cruise lines publish environmental reports and outlines of their efforts to address pollution on their websites.

A March 2004 report from Conservation International says much of what the cruise industry is doing to address pollution control goes "beyond prevailing regulations and shipping practices". And although, the group says, there is still much work to be done, the industry's environmental programs “are more extensive than might be expected given the headlines of the past few years.”

Environmental group Oceana says the Clean Cruise Ship Bill is on track to be taken up again during this session of Congress. Such a development, coupled with progressive moves within the industry, many say, signals a step in the right direction to protect not only U.S. waters, but also vulnerable Caribbean nations and their native species from the pollution of tourists, who are so otherwise vital to island economies.

Oceana's fact sheet on the Clean Cruise Ship Bill can be downloaded in PDF format online.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Ethical Corporation. It was first published on February 25, 2005.