Dirty Waters: Cashing in on Ocean Pollution

Despite their reliance on natural resources to sell cruises, the cruise line industry defends its right to treat the oceans like a sewer and a waste dump.

On a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a few years back, Shauna and David Schober were snorkeling off the coast with a tour company that took them by boat to explore some underwater caves. But their snorkel excursion was cut short when less than a mile away a cruise ship discharged its septic tanks.

David Rosenfeld and Joe Trento discuss cruise ship pollution.

“As it was passing, the water behind it was bubbling up out of the back with almost like a sick green algae substance,” Shauna Schober said. “It looked like sewage, and you could smell it – like it was treated with chemicals, almost like it smells in a porta-potty.”

The tour guides said: Get out of the water. “They said the cruise ship was dumping its tanks and it was better not to be in the water,” she said.

The cruise line industry relies on pristine oceans, beautiful coral reefs and marine life to draw millions of travelers on cruise vacations each year. But the same ships that advertise excursions to untouched ocean scenery are threatening these very same natural resources with their standard practice of flushing harmful toxins, mostly as sewage and food waste, into the ocean.

These problems are not new or unknown. But the cruise line industry has been operating effectively with little federal government oversight for much of the past decade since Department of Justice in the late 1990s indicted the top three cruise companies for dumping oily bilge water (the stagnate oil and water that collect in the ship’s hull). Investigators found that ships had installed pipes – hidden in hand rails on some ships – that allowed crew members to bypass oil separators intended to purify the bilge water.

The resulting $52 million combined settlement – Royal Caribbean having paid out the most at $30.8 million – also created a probationary period where ships were required to maintain an environmental officer with a direct line to management. The probationary period has since expired and the federal government now has no authority to determine if the environmental officers are qualified and monitoring cruise line compliance with environmental laws.

One of the environmental officers hired as a result of the probation was Walter Nadolny, who worked on board Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Lines between 2001 and 2005. He is now an assistant professor at the State University of New York Maritime College. Nadolny said it’s the pure volume of material discharged into the ocean that concerned him most.

The Oasis of the Seas leaving the STX shipyard in Turku Finland. Photo: Zache / Wikimedia commons
The Oasis of the Seas leaving the STX shipyard in Turku Finland. Photo: Zache / Wikimedia commons
Aside from sewage, Nadolny said food waste – which isn’t regulated at all – strikes him as a greater concern. The average cruise ship serves between 10,000 and 12,000 meals per day. On a ship of 5,000 people eating four to five meals a day, the total is closer to 25,000 meals. Food waste is then ground up, put into a holding tank and discharged as food slurry. The putrefying food waste creates acid. In the ocean, it lowers oxygen and increases nutrients in the water, based on an EPA report in 2008 on cruise ship pollution discharge.

“This massive amount of food starts self digesting and becomes this extremely acidic mess, probably worse than raw sewage,” Nadolny said. “At least with raw sewage, somebody’s digested it. It’s not so much feeding the fish as it is dumping an acidic mass in the water that can harm coral reefs.”

As the probationary period ended, many cruise lines replaced their compliance officers with less trained, lower paid personnel who have greater reason to want to keep their job than to blow the whistle on environmental violations, according to Ross Klein, Ph.D., an author of numerous books critical of the cruise line industry.

“One of my informants at Royal Caribbean said they were increasingly getting rid of their American, English speaking people and hiring Filipinos, not necessarily environmental scientists, but crew members who were put through a week of training and became an environmental officer,” Klein said. “Because they were being paid much better than they were before, these people were less likely to stand up to the company.”

Jim Walsh, a former vice president of environmental, health and safety for Carnival Cruise Lines filed a wrongful termination suit against the cruise line in 2002. Walsh said he was fired because he raised concerns with executives about the company’s environmental practices.

Walsh did not respond to a request for comment, but according to documents filed as part of his lawsuit, Walsh alleged that Carnival cruise ships were dumping waste oil into an open pit in the Bahamas.

“The only reason cruise ships are as irresponsible environmentally as they are isn’t because they don’t have the technology necessarily. It’s because they don’t want to spend the money,” Klein said. “They can afford to improve their behavior but that would mean their stockholders might not make as much money or they’d have to raise their prices.”

Discharging sewage

“You’re not going to be flying over a city dropping human waste on the folks below, so I don’t think we should treat our oceans any differently,” said Howard Breen, program and development director for Friends of the Earth Canada.

High levels of fecal coliform, harmful nutrients, bacteria and pathogens found in human waste and gray water can threaten marine life by starving certain areas of oxygen. This can increase the likelihood of toxic algae blooms and ill health effects for those who eat shell fish. Algae blooms can destroy coral reefs and have led to the deaths of seals in California and recently birds in the Pacific Northwest. Swimming among high levels of sewage can cause illness and even death in humans. Yet beyond three miles from shore, discharging such waste is largely ignored.

One solution is to install advanced wastewater treatment systems that discharge water that is clean enough to drink, according to Nadolny who’s tried it.

But the cruise lines are dragging their anchors.

In the decade since the multi-million dollar judgments brought by the Department of Justice forced the world’s top three cruise lines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian – to significantly reduce polluting the oceans with oily bilge water and sewage, the cruise lines have been slow to upgrade ships with state of the art treatment systems though the technology is widely available and the costs are entirely feasible.

They choose instead to resist regulations, such as opposing the Clean Cruise Ship Act in Congress, by implementing major lobbying efforts, including generous campaign contributions to key politicians and making charitable donations to special state and local organizations and awards to favored journalists.

Even newest ships lack technology

A Midnight buffet aboard the Celebrity Cruise Vessel Century. Photo: Jim G / Flickr
A Midnight buffet aboard the Celebrity Cruise Vessel Century. Photo: Jim G / Flickr
Royal Caribbean’s recently launched Oasis of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever built with a 5,400-passenger and 2,200-crew capacity, cost $1.5 billion and is equipped with an advanced sewage treatment system. But many other ships that carry up to 5,000 passengers, even those produced in the past three years, do not have the latest technology to handle waste. And even Oasis of the Seas does not concern itself with food waste.

Today’s cruise ships carry on average between 3,000 and 7,000 people including the crew. A moderately sized ship on a week’s voyage can generate more than 200,000 gallons of human sewage – enough to fill 10 backyard swimming pools – a million gallons of gray water, 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water, more than 100 gallons of hazardous waste, and eight tons of solid waste, including ground up food waste. And almost all of it gets discharged into the environment either straight into the ocean or incinerated onboard and the ashes thrown overboard with a small amount hauled on shore.

Because harmful pollutants come from human sewage, Friends of the Earth, an international environmental watchdog group, recently put out a report card that grades cruise ships on whether they carry an advanced wastewater treatment system. That is the gold standard compared to less costly marine sanitation devices (MSDs), which meet international maritime law.

An EPA report released in 2008 found wastewater discharges from MSDs onboard cruise ships emit up to 10,000 times the legal allowed level of pathogens based on the Clean Water Act. But federal and international law allow cruise ships to discharge raw sewage at least three miles from the coastline and sewage treated by an MSD even closer to shore.

It comes down to money. Advanced treatment systems cost between $1 million and $10 million, said Marcie Keever, Friends of the Earth clean vessels campaign director. “That’s minimal compared to building a new ship, which can cost more than $1 billion,” Keever said.

The report card showed that cruise lines vary, even those owned by the same company. Holland America, for instance, owned by Carnival Corporation, received the highest grade while Carnival Cruise Lines, a separate subsidiary, received the lowest.

Of the 20 ships from the 10 cruise lines reviewed by Friends of the Earth that launched since 2006, 13 have installed advanced sewage treatment systems and seven have not – three each by Carnival and Princess and one by Silversea Cruises.

In its latest report on cruise ship pollution, the group estimates the impact in future years. In 2008, more than 13 million people took a cruise vacation. Based on production of 38 new ships in the next three years the number of cruise passengers will likely double. And there’s little assurance those ships will have the latest technology to handle waste.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Keever said. “These cruise ships go to some of the most pristine places on our planet promising unspoiled scenery and wildlife, but really don’t talk about how the industry can leave a dirty mark on the environment.”

Industry response

The Cruise Line International Association, which lobbies on behalf of the cruise industry, responded to the report card by attacking the environmental group’s “agenda” in what it termed an “arbitrary and flawed criteria.”

“The grades in the report card clearly ignore the fact that our cruise lines comply with and in most cases exceed all applicable environmental regulations set by the federal government and other regulatory bodies around the world,” the statement read (see attached PDF).

Carnival Cruise Lines, which controls more than half the market, responded by e-mail to a request for comment. “We are committed to preserving the environment, particularly the oceans upon which our ships sail, and currently employ advanced wastewater technology on the Carnival Spirit, which operates the Line’s Alaska cruises,” wrote Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman. “We are currently evaluating this type of technology for our vessels, but no decision has been made.”

In 2004 Royal Caribbean signed an agreement with the environmental group Oceana that the cruise line would upgrade its entire fleet with advanced sewage systems, but an exact time frame wasn’t specified. The newest ships by Royal Caribbean that carry more than 5,000 people are equipped with the latest sewage treatment technology, and they’ve been making progress on the fleet, but not as fast as some would like.

“We would hope that by now they would be further along than they are,” said Jackie Savitz, Oceana campaign director. “The issue is how much of their resources they’re putting into it.”

A Royal Caribbean spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Considering the cruise industry’s profits and the fact they pay virtually no corporate income tax in the United States because most ships are flagged in foreign countries (Carnival is headquartered in Panama, Royal Caribbean in Liberia), they can afford these upgrades, Keever said.

Carnival Cruise Corporation recently posted a $1 billion profit in the third quarter of 2009 alone, having earned more than $9 billion in net income in four years. Royal Caribbean made $230.4 million in third quarter profit last year, down from $411.9 million over the same period in 2008.

Cruising for a bruising

Cruise ships docked in Juneau Alaska. Photo: Robert A. Estremo
Cruise ships docked in Juneau Alaska. Photo: Robert A. Estremo
Carnival pointed out its Alaska cruise ship because the ships that skirt the edges of majestic glaciers in Alaska are under some of the world’s tightest regulations when it comes to discharging sewage and other wastewater into the ocean. Independent monitors onboard ships test for increased levels of harmful pollutants in human sewage that can disrupt marine life.

But even with intense monitoring, the Alaska Department of Conservation dinged six ships last year for wastewater pollution violations. In 2008, 60 percent of the ships that operated in Alaska, 12 of 20, violated the state’s water quality standards. Last year was worse with 72 percent, 13 of 18, getting fined. These violations illustrate some of the shortfalls even with the advanced treatment systems.

To avoid state law, several Alaskan cruise vessels motor into federal waters further offshore to empty their bowels.

The Alaska law requires that ships discharge wastewater – both gray water from showers, sinks and the like and black water from sewage – using an advanced treatment system. The onboard monitors, known as the ocean ranger program, are funded in part through a $50 head tax per passenger.

It is because of the Alaska law that so many ships have advanced treatment systems at all. Just one of Carnival Cruise Line’s fleet of 23 ships carries an advanced system, and that’s because it’s the only ship that travels to Alaska, Keever said. The rest cruise the Caribbean and Mexico where ships follow the more lax international law.

In the absence of federal oversight, a patchwork of state regulations protect some places but not others. Alaska, Washington and California standout for strict enforcement leaving British Colombia and Oregon largely unprotected. Weak standards in Florida negotiated in 2002 require no more than the industry’s own recommendations for discharging waste.

For each of the past six years, Congress has introduced legislation to tighten cruise ship discharge laws. Last year is no exception. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) co-sponsored yet another version of the Clean Cruise Ship Act. The intent is simple: to bring sewage and other gray water discharges under the Clean Water Act and require ships to install advanced treatment systems and travel farther than 12 nautical miles offshore before discharging any sewage.

If past experience is any indication, ships will choose to travel the extra distance into international waters, expending additional fuel, rather than risk non-compliance or invest in advanced treatment technologies.

A similar requirement imposed through a memo of understanding in Washington has led to fewer and fewer cruise ships applying for discharge permits in Washington coastal waters. They choose instead to hold it and discharge off the coast of Canada or outside Washington waters, which can be more than 12 miles from the coast in some places.

In 2006, 11 vessels were approved for discharging in Puget Sound compared to just two vessels approved last year, said Amy Jankowiak, Washington Department of Ecology compliance specialist. The last violation occurred in 2006 when the Washington Department of Ecology fined Celebrity Cruise Lines – owned by Royal Caribbean – $100,000 for dumping half a million gallons of untreated wastewater into Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

A sewage container on board the Celebrity Cruise Vessel Constellation. Photo: Niko Lipsanen
A sewage container on board the Celebrity Cruise Vessel Constellation. Photo: Niko Lipsanen
The Washington program, which began in 2003, relies on voluntary participation and spot inspections of a cruise ship’s log books. The state also prohibits ships from dumping sewage sludge, what is left behind as concentrate after the wastewater is treated. The typical waste treatment device generates 4,000 gallons of sewage sludge per day, according to a 2007 study by Washington environmental regulators.

Outside of Washington waters, “they are definitely dumping sludge,” Jankowiak said.