Ocean cruising is more popular today than ever before and is a huge growth industry. As cruise ships become bigger and bigger — some carrying up to 5,000 people and offering amenities ranging from movie theaters and ice skating rinks to gourmet restaurants — they have become virtual floating cities.
Unfortunately, cruise ships can pollute like cities, too, according to industry critics and environmentalists. “The pristine ocean cruisers we see in TV commercials are also massive ocean polluters, often generating and dumping wastes equivalent to those of a small city into our coastal waters,” writes Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., whose district includes the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. (See “At Issue,” p. 949.)
Furthermore, say environmentalists, when cruise ships sail near delicate environments, such as Caribbean coral reefs, the effects of pollution may be magnified. While some ships have voluntarily installed state-of-the-art, onboard wastewater-treatment systems, others have not and routinely — and legally — dump raw, untreated sewage into the ocean when the ship is beyond the three-mile limit, says the international environmental advocacy group Oceana. “This waste not only carries bacteria, which are harmful to human health, but it also sickens and kills marine life including fish and corals.”
But J. Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL) — which represents more than 90 percent of large passenger vessels operating in the U.S. market — contends that cruise lines recognize that their future “depends on clean, healthy oceans” and are “actively developing, testing and adopting cutting-edge technologies to foster a healthier marine environment.”
A 3,000-passenger cruise ship leaves the Port of Los Angeles. (U.S. Coast Guard/PA1 Daniel Tremper)
Each year cruise lines generate more than 400 million pounds of waste — including about a quarter of the solid waste generated by all ocean-going ships. Each week, according to the Pew Oceans Commission, a typical 3,000-passenger cruise ship generates:
210,000 gallons of “black water,” or sewage;
1 million gallons of “gray water,” or the wastewater from showers, sinks and dishwashing;
37,000 gallons of oily bilge water;
More than eight tons of solid waste;
Toxic chemicals from activities like dry cleaning and photo processing; and
Air pollution from fuel emissions and trash burning, which falls into the ocean.
In addition, the average passenger generates at least two pounds of non-hazardous solid waste each day and disposes of two bottles and two cans. And when empty ships arrive in port to pick up passengers, they dump millions of gallons of ballast water — potentially containing invasive animal and plant species that could alter the local environmental balance.
Since 1980, the number of cruise passengers worldwide has grown dramatically, totaling about 9.5 million passengers in 2003 — 72 percent of them embarking in the United States. From 1993-1998, for instance, cruise-ship embarkations in the United States jumped by 50 percent.
When in U.S. waters — up to 12 miles from shore — cruise ships are required to abide by U.S. laws and regulations, which are enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When in international waters ships are expected to abide by standards established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which — among other things — prohibits the dumping of solid waste or plastics into the ocean. The rules are supposed to be enforced by countries where cruise ships dock or the ship's home country. Most of the world's 230 cruise ships are registered outside the United States.
Under the Clean Water Act, ships can dump their untreated sewage into the ocean when they are farther than three miles from shore. However, most cruise ships today voluntarily treat their sewage before dumping it. Ships can legally dump their untreated gray water and ballast water anywhere — except in Alaska, where it is prohibited within three miles of shore.
Oil and hazardous substances cannot be dumped within 12 miles of U.S. shores, but environmentalists claim such substances are often mixed in the untreated gray water and bilge water. Ships usually burn most of their solid waste at sea, where the smoke and ash settle on the ocean.
Environmentalists worry about the impact on ocean ecosystems from the untreated ballast and gray water, as well as the emissions from the onboard incinerators and the disposal of toxic photo-processing and print-shop chemicals used onboard.
Government monitoring of shipboard waste disposal is sporadic at best. A 2000 General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that while cruise-ship pollution incidents generally decreased during the 1990s, 87 cases were brought against cruise lines in the United States for illegal discharges between 1993-1998, resulting in significant civil and criminal penalties.
According to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (USCOP), “new cases leading to additional civil and criminal penalties have continued over the past several years.” In 2002, for instance, Carnival Cruises was fined $18 million for illegal discharge of oily wastewater and records falsification. And the Crystal Harmony cruise line was banned for 15 years from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary after admitting in 2003 that it had dumped 36,000 gallons of gray water, treated bilge and black water into the sanctuary, according to Rep. Farr.
Environmental advocates say federal and state rules regulating cruise-ship wastes are weak and inadequately enforced and that the jurisdiction is too fragmented. For instance, the U.S. Coast Guard — charged with enforcing environmental rules for ships — has been focusing since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on its homeland security duties. Even before 9/11, the GAO noted, Coast Guard inspectors did not have time during their scheduled ship examinations to inspect sewage treatment equipment.
In response to the environmental concerns, cruise lines have signed individual waste management and oversight agreements with some states. But the USCOP says “a new regime is needed that provides clear, uniform requirements for the discharge of wastewater from large passenger vessels, as well as consistent interpretation and enforcement of those requirements.”
States have jurisdiction over ocean waters within three miles of shore, and recently several states have begun stricter regulation of cruise-ship discharges. Alaska, for example, found that none of the 22 cruise ships it examined was in full compliance on black water, and 75 percent of “treated” samples exceeded federal standards on fecal coliform. During the summer of 2001 — by which time ships in Alaskan waters were required to treat their black water and gray water — about half the samples examined still exceeded their standards for bacterial and suspended-solid contamination.
In 2004, Maine and California enacted restrictions on cruise ships' wastewater discharge within their coastal waters. The cruise industry also has entered into voluntary agreements with Florida, Washington and Hawaii to follow state procedures for dumping waste within the three-mile limit, including bans on dumping treated wastewater and trash incineration as well as requirements for waste minimization and recycling.
Legislation to strengthen federal rules for the handling of cruise ship waste was introduced this year but has not advanced in either the House or the Senate, nor did similar legislation introduced in the last Congress.
The cruise industry says new federal rules are unnecessary because current laws and voluntary industry actions have virtually eliminated pollution problems. There is “no current scientific support” for a new federal law, according to the ICCL's Crye. Calls for new laws are “especially ironic in light of the fact that the industry has adopted practices that reduce its impact on coastal water quality to zero,” he says.
The ICCL says its members “have embraced the principles” in the MARPOL treaty and “have comprehensive environmental programs in place” to eliminate ship-generated pollution. Furthermore, Crye argues, targeting cruise ships for special anti-waste measures is unfair because they make up only two-tenths of a percent of the world's total ocean fleet.
Cruise ships of the future, however, could be another story. The World, a “condo-ship” launched in 2002, sells and rents large condominium apartments to long-term tenants rather than week-at-a-time vacationers. Besides the usual amenities, it boasts a medical center with a surgical theater and a retractable marina for ocean water sports. But plans for the Freedom City — now under construction in Turkey — strain the imagination. The mile-long, 25-story behemoth will sport an electric-tram system, a two-runway airport and more than 18,000 condos and hotel rooms. Plans call for it to circle the globe every three years, standing offshore near major cities on all continents except Antarctica.
“With its huge size and its potential for affecting ocean ecosystems around the world,” Freedom City “is a symbol of the enormous challenge we face,” said the Ocean Conservancy.