Cruising’s Dark and Dirty Not-So-Secret

All those brilliant white cruise ships steaming on the world’s oceans carry a lot more than vacationing passengers. They also carry loads of pollution.
The international ocean environmental group, Oceana, reports that pollution from cruise ships is a growing problem. That’s an understatement.
One example: Except for California and Alaska, “lax state and federal anti-pollution laws allow cruise ships to dump untreated sewage from sinks and showers and inadequately treated sewage from toilets into state waters,” the organization says.
Once ships are three miles from shore, they can dump untreated sewage from toilets. “This puts our coastal environment at risk from the threats of bacteria, pathogens and heavy metals generated in these waste streams.”


Each day, cruise ships generate an astonishing amount of waste and pollution. Here are some hard, dark numbers, care of Oceana:
· 25,000 gallons of sewage from toilets
· 143,000 gallons of sewage from sinks, galleys and showers
· 7 tons of garbage and solid waste
· 15 gallons of toxic chemicals
· 7,000 gallons of oily bilge water
And without adequate regulation and attention, the problem will worsen because the cruise industry itself is growing, along with new cruise ships, cruise terminals and added destinations.
The cruise industry enjoys some sweet pollution exemptions. Under the Clean Water Act, cities and industries are required to obtain a permit to treat and discharge wastes. These permits ensure that sewage treatment systems are effective, and that both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and that the public know how much pollution is actually being discharged.
“Yet cruise ships are not required to have discharge permits,” Oceana reports. “They can dump sewage into the oceans without monitoring or reporting what they release. As a result, neither the government nor the public know how much pollution is released, and there are no means for citizen enforcement.”
Cruise ships are allowed to release treated sewage wherever they sail, except the state waters of California. They are also permitted to release untreated gray water — wastewater from dishwashers, baths, showers, laundries, sinks and wash basins — anywhere they sail, again except in Alaskan and Californian state waters. Once outside of three miles from the U.S. coastline, cruise ships can also lawfully release untreated sewage, or black water, anywhere. There is one exception, the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska, where treated sewage and gray water may be discharged only while cruise ships are under way and traveling at least six knots.
Cruise ships are required to have onboard waste treatment systems, known as marine sanitation devices (MSDs), but the industry is not required to monitor or report MSD discharges to either the government or the public. A study in Alaska showed that sewage from large cruise vessels “treated” by MSDs failed to meet federal standards for treated sewage in 69 out of 70 samples. Cruise ships also are not required to monitor the quality of the waters into which they routinely dump their waste.
On solid waste, mainly plastic and related garbage, according to Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, or MARPOL 73/78, cruise ships are barred from dumping plastics anywhere at sea and floatable garbage within 25 miles of shore. Given the size of the Eastern Garbage Dump, those strictures have worked well have they?
Even more confusing and nonsensical, cruise ships are permitted to dump garbage that has been ground into pieces larger than one inch when they are three miles from shore, and ungrounded garbage when they are at least 12 miles form shore.
Toxic chemicals generated by cruise ships are generally waste products from photo developing, dry cleaning, painting and other activities. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, ships are required to store these wastes onboard while under way, and then, once in port, to transfer them to certified chemical treatment and disposal facilities.
In the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster more than 20 years ago, the Oil Pollution Act amended the Clean Water Act to prevent oil dumping by ships. Any oil coming from a ship within 12 miles of shore must be diluted enough so that it leaves no “visible sheen,” which means it must measure less than 15 parts per million (ppm).
Once a ship is more than 12 miles from shore, it may release more concentrated oily waste, as long as it measures less than 100 ppm. The law also requires ships to retain oily waste onboard while under way and then send it to an appropriate reception facility on shore. Ships also must record the disposal of oily residues and bilge water.
Considering the degrading state of the world’s oceans those measures feature too much self-regulation and today are woefully outdated. They lack teeth regarding monitoring, enforcement and penalties. It’s time for a sea change.

writer, editor, reader and general good (ok mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by