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Cruising’s Dark and Dirty Not-So-Secret

Bill DiBenedetto | Tuesday May 19th, 2009 | 7 Comments

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.


▼▼▼      7 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Jeff

    Something should be done. These stats are disgusting and alarming.

  • Rob Bryan

    Is the problem that there aren’t enough regulations, or that they aren’t enforced or enforceable? Or is it the false belief in the economy of scale and the mantra “the market demands growth” (Tasch, 2008)? Should we just try to make them better or should we look for solutions that are better than just better, solutions that are actually good solutions?
    Size matters. The 4,300 passenger “Freedom of the Seas” burns 28,000 gallons of fuel an HOUR! How much will the 6,500 passenger “Genesis” burn when launched?
    That’s 6.5 gallons per hour per passenger. That’s a lot of trees to plant….
    The fact is that too many people in too small a footprint is not sustainable. On land you can spread out, collect solar and wind over uninhabited areas to supply more concentrated areas. Biosphere II is the classic example. It’s the same with a boat. One is limited to the sun falling on the footprint, wind blowing over it, and it’s speed through the water. How many for how big? That’s the question.
    Buckminster Fuller said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That’s what we’re doing at 3Degrees Marine, L3C.

  • jaded cruiser

    The cruise industry is not only environmentally filthy, it’s also culturally filthy – there is little or no education about where people are going (many passengers do not even know where to find the countries they visit on maps – a classic story is the Hatian port of Larabee where passengers disembark into a gated enclave and are not even told they are in Haiti much less given a chance to learn about the country).
    Cruise ships dump 1000s into towns like Juneau and Ketchikan where they stagger around the streets for a few hours buying knick-knacks and fast food from the stores that the cruise industry promotes – for a fee. If you don’t pay the fee you wind up on a list of “businesses to avoid”.
    I have no problem with small ships with a cultural or educational agenda, but the slob factories have to go!

  • bustercrab

    It’s a shame that more people have not commented about this. I live in southren Belize, on the coast, and the amount of garbage that litters my beach each day is awful. We humans treat the oceans as a dump, without regard to the aquatic life that is necessary for our very survival. Plastics, styrafoam and other such man made waste will cause the death of our seas – within 50 years at best. IF we don’t take this situation more seriously. Keep killing the sharks for fins, the Blue Fin Tuna, cause it “taste so good”, keep gill netting until there are no more bait fish. Then face the consequences.
    Unfortunately, given human greed and the lack of interest and concern I fear we’ll do to little to late. I been in Belize for over 6 years and I can bear witness to the distruction. I pray the mankind will wake up soon. God help us all if we don’t.  

    • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

      Buster – you might be interested in today’s article – http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/01/belize-cruise-ship-placencia/

  • Commander truth

    This is a load of hooey,seriously.So fish wear diapers! Who are you trying to fool. Its biodegradable and if anything adds to the quality of life for the fish and the ocean.Think of it as fertilizer,it enriches the whole environment. There are  343 quintillion gallons, or put another way, 343 billion BILLION gallons in the ocean and the amount of time it would take to pollute it from this organic matter if even possible which it isnt would be millions of years.Why dont all you environmental people quit using junk science to frighten everyone and go do what the other half of your people do…look for Bigfoot.

  • Clyde Johnson

    I can only speak from experience, but, yes, beyond doubt, our oceans are polluted.  40 years ago I surfed as a kid on California’s coast, snorkeled Hawaiian reefs, and saw beautifully-colored fish and coral in Jamaica.  I have returned to all of these places in recent years.  My surfboard after being out in the rollers in Santa Barbara was tinged brown and had tar from oil from off-shore oil rigs, Hawaii’s reefs near resorts and cruise-ship ports are brown with few fish eating off of stringy remains coating dead coral, and the same is true all over Jamaica; a sharp contrast to what I saw in the early ’70’s.  The ocean is vast.  However, if you get out and look for yourself, human impact on nature is striking and significant.  It saddens me that environmental education is so limited.  But we can still become responsible inhabitants by getting out there and seeing for yourself how beautiful and fragile our world really is.