Soiling the Seven Seas

The cruise ship industry has been riding a tidal wave of prosperity in recent years, earning more than $1.5 billion in profits and experiencing an explosive growth rate of eight percent per year. There is no sign this tide is ebbing: By the end of 2004, the cruise industry plans to introduce 47 new ships to the North American fleet, up from today's 144.

Although the industry's success ultimately depends on the beauty of the oceans, the armada of cruise ships now plying the planet's waters is leaving a trail of pollution in its wake. Today's cruise ships, the largest of which can carry more than 5,000 passengers and crew, are floating cities that generate titanic volumes of waste. A typical cruise ship on a one-week voyage produces approximately eight tons of garbage, as well as one million gallons of "graywater" (wastewater from sinks, showers, galleys and laundry), 210,000 gallons of sewage, and 25,000 gallons of oil-contaminated water. In addition, untold amounts of hazardous waste are generated on board from onboard printing, photo processing and dry cleaning operations.

Unfortunately, the environmental laws and regulations designed to control pollution from these colossal ships have not kept pace with the industry's runaway growth. The Clean Water Act was formulated before the dawn of the mega-cruise ship, when waste from vessels was not perceived as a significant problem. As a result, the numerous loopholes and exemptions in current environmental regulations give the cruise industry a "license" to pollute.

For example, the Clean Water Act makes it unlawful to discharge pollutants from any "point source" into US waters without a permit. But discharges of sewage and graywater from vessels are exempt from this requirement. Graywater -- which, although not raw sewage ("blackwater"), often contains contaminants such as detergents, cleaners, oil, grease, metals and pesticides -- can legally be dumped anywhere, even though the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that graywater can cause adverse environmental effects.

The cruise industry has a history of illegally polluting the waters in which it sails. From 1993 to 1998, cruise ships were held responsible for 104 confirmed cases of illegal discharge of oil, garbage, and hazardous wastes, and required to pay more than $30 million in fines. This is just the tip of the trashberg. In reality, this number represents only a fraction of the industry's total illegal dumping. Several of these cases involved multiple incidents of illegal dumping that, according to the Department of Justice, numbered in the hundreds over the six-year period. Furthermore, this reflects only the quantity of detected cases; a recent report by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) reveals that the US Coast Guard's ability to detect and enforce marine pollution violations is hamstrung by numerous shortcomings.

In a particularly egregious case, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (RCC) admitted routinely dumping waste oil from its ships and deliberately dumping hazardous photo processing, dry cleaning and print shop chemicals into US harbors and off-coast areas over a period of several years. RCC ships were rigged with secret piping systems designed to bypass pollution treatment equipment. The company's violations were characterized by investigators as so unscrupulous that they amounted to a "fleet-wide conspiracy [to] use our nation's waterways as its dumping ground," and so pervasive that criminal conduct was carried out as a routine business practice. Royal Caribbean finally signed a plea agreement in July 1999, admitting guilt to a total of 21 felony counts in six US jurisdictions, and agreeing to pay a record $18 million in criminal fines.

In response to the cruise industry's flagrant and repeated violations of marine pollution laws, Bluewater Network, a project of Earth Island Journal, has launched a national campaign to get the industry to clean up its act. Bluewater has filed a petition with the EPA, highlighting the loopholes and exemptions in our environmental laws that let the cruise industry slip through the regulatory cracks. Bluewater is calling on the EPA to come up with ways to better monitor and regulate the cruise ship industry. Fifty-four other environmental organizations signed the petition, strengthening our call for action from the EPA to rein in the renegade cruise industry.

The EPA sat up and took notice: Within a month of receiving the petition, it formed an interagency work group to implement a rapid and coordinated response to the petition. The agency produced a whitepaper and held public hearings last summer as first steps toward making recommendations regarding national cruiseship policies. The EPA also may issue an Advance Notice for Proposed Rulemaking on the regulation of cruise ship wastewater by year's end.

Not surprisingly, the cruise industry's reaction was less positive. Its representatives sent a letter to the EPA, Coast Guard and Department of Justice officials, members of Congress, and the 54 signatory organizations, denouncing the petition. The letter mocked the petition's tone and characterized its recommendations as unproductive and sensationalistic, claiming the cruise industry "cares about the environment and is proactively developing solutions to environmental challenges."

Although voluntary efforts by the cruise industry to clean up its act are steps in the right direction, they are insufficient to ensure that cruise ship pollution of the marine environment will abate. This industry has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to protect the environment on its own. Furthermore, the industry's initiatives do not permit active involvement by concerned citizens and organizations, and are not legally binding. It is clear that regulatory measures are needed to ensure that the industry closely monitors and controls the tremendous volume of waste generated by its ships.

In addition to the EPA's commendably rapid and well-coordinated response to Bluewater's petition, legislative action is being taken at the state level to tighten the screws on cruise ships. Bluewater has successfully lobbied lawmakers in Alaska and California to introduce bills that would require cruise ships to monitor and report regularly to the state environmental agency on all pollutants discharged into state waters and all waste offloaded at ports.

Now that policymakers have been informed of the weight of the cruise ship pollution problem, there is hope that this human-cargo industry will finally receive the scrutiny and regulations it needs -- and our threatened seas the protection they require.

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