Dirty Cruises – Cleaning Up a Polluting Industry

Dirty Cruises - Cleaning Up a Polluting Industry

Cruises may seem like they are environmentally friendly. However, the cruise industry pollutes the waters in which its ship sail in a major way. It’s time to clean it up!

By Wendy Priesnitz

Taking a cruise may, at first glance, seem like an environmentally friendly vacation. If you choose to sail in parts of the Caribbean, up the British Columbia coast, along the St. Lawrence River, or into the Arctic, you will drift quietly past spectacular views and pristine environments. In some areas, you might even have the privilege of observing wildlife like whales and endangered shore birds.

However, your trip – and the hundreds of others just like it – is probably endangering the very ecosystem you are so keen to observe. And it’s not a new problem.

The West Coast Environment Law (WCEL) organization released a report in 2001 on the regulation of cruise ship pollution. It found that cruise ships discharge five major waste streams: graywater, sewage, oily bilge water, hazardous waste, and garbage. In the course of a one-week cruise, a ship will dump hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste directly into the sea, generated by up to 7,000 passengers and crew.

A large cruise ship on a one week voyage is estimated to generate 210,000 gallons (or ten backyard swimming pools) of human sewage. It will also create one million gallons (forty more swimming pools) of graywater (water from sinks, baths, showers, laundry and galleys).

According to a report by the Earth Island Institute, graywater from showers and other drains can contain detergents and pesticides that can cause oxygen depletion in marine environments. Sewage from cruise ships can contain chlorine and formaldehyde, paint, solvents, and even dry-cleaning sludge.

Slow to Green Up Cruises

A 2016 report by Friends of the Earth (FOE) on the cruise industry found that companies are slow to adopt technologies and practices that could reduce harmful fuel emissions and limit water pollution in the areas where they travel and dock. FOE graded seventeen cruise companies and close to two hundred ships. It concluded that the industry has shown an “ongoing lack of initiative” to address the cruise liners’ environmental impacts.

Studies conducted in Alaskan ports have revealed shocking levels of pollutants coming from cruise ships, including fecal coliform bacteria in amounts that exceeded U.S. standards by nearly 100,000 times. In the United States, from 1993 to 1998, cruise ships were involved in over 100 detected cases of illegal discharges, and paid more than $30 million in fines.

In the 1990s, Royal Caribbean Cruises (which claims to be one of the more eco-friendly companies) pleaded guilty to 21 counts of routine and deliberate dumping of hazardous wastes into U.S. waters and was fined $18 million.

In spite of all this, the cruise industry says it is working hard to improve its environmental performance. For instance, the Holland America line, which has a history of exceeding existing regulations, installed a waste water treatment system aboard some of its ships. The system claims to convert wastewater to near-drinking water quality. The water is re-used for deck wash-downs, laundry rinsing, engine cooling, and ballast on its cruises.

A decade or so ago, Princess Cruises began shutting down its ships’ diesel engines and plugging into shore power to cut down on the amount of smoke spewing into the sky while in port.

Punishing Cruise Lines for Pollution

However great that move was, it seems now like it and other moves to clean up cruises were not much more than greenwashing. In the fall of 2016, Princess Cruise Lines made history by receiving the largest-ever criminal penalty involving deliberate vessel pollution. The line has agreed to plead guilty and pay a $40 million penalty for seven felony charges stemming from its deliberate pollution of the seas. It was charged with dumping oil contaminated waste from the Caribbean Princess cruise ship and intentional acts to cover it up.

According to the Maritime Executive industry business journal, the investigation was initiated after information was provided to the U.S. Coast Guard by the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). An engineer on the Caribbean Princess reported that oily waste was discharged from the ship in 2013 off the coast of England. The chief engineer and senior first engineer subsequently ordered a cover-up. According to papers filed in court, the ship had been making illegal discharges since 2005. It also visits a variety of ports in the U.S. and Canada.

The investigation uncovered two other illegal discharge practices which were found to have taken place on the Caribbean Princess and four other Princess ships – Star Princess, Grand Princess, Coral Princess, and Golden Princess. They were not truthfully recorded in the ships’ record books as required.

Princess Cruise Lines is a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise company. As part of the agreement, cruise ships from eight Carnival cruise line companies will be under a court supervised Environmental Compliance Program for five years. They include Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Seabourn Cruise Line, and AIDA Cruises.

The motive for the crimes was probably financial. According to the investigation, the chief engineer who ordered the dumping off the coast of England told employees that it cost too much to properly offload the waste in port.

Cruises Not Eco-Tourism

John Kaltenstein, senior policy analyst for Friends of the Earth, told the Maritime Journal, “The entire industry needs to be investigated…we need federal agency and congressional oversight of cruise industry pollution practices. Princess’s behavior also shows that we cannot take this polluting industry’s claims of environmental responsibility at face value even when they install the most current pollution control technologies.”

The cruise industry is growing rapidly as cruises become more and more popular and ships become larger, transporting tens of millions of passengers a year worldwide. It generates huge revenues for all the jurisdictions involved, not the least for cities along the cruise ship routes. In the U.S. alone, the industry provides more than $32 billion in economic benefits annually and creates more than 330,000 jobs. However, without stiffer laws and increased enforcement, cruising is definitely not an eco-tourism pursuit.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine, where an earlier version of this article appeared, a journalist with 40 years of experience, and the author of thirteen books.

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