New California legislation may mean cleaner cruise liners

By Michael Collins

Ventura County Reporter – September 23, 2004

Royal Carribean Dumps placardEnvironmental victories can be few and far between but don’t tell that to Washington D.C.-based Oceana, a non-profit organization formed by actor Ted Danson. The group’s campaign against Royal Caribbean for its polluting ways paid off last May. The luxury cruise liner ceded to Oceana’s “Potty Train Royal Caribbean” drive and decided to clean up its act and outfit its entire 26 ship fleet with state of the art pollution controls on its mini-cities on the sea.

A cruise ship can discharge 30,000 gallons of sewage, called “black water,” into the sea every day, as this paper has previously reported (“Ship of Stools” Nov. 26, 2003). Up to 255,000 gallons of “gray water,” generated by dishwater, laundries, showers and sinks, adds to the mix according to Oceana, which was founded in 2001. Cruise liners release approximately 7,000 gallons of oily bilge water daily, along with 265,000 gallons of ballast water that includes non-native aquatic animals and plants from foreign ports, and seven tons of solid waste and garbage. Oceana reported that 23 ships in Royal Caribbean’s International and Celebrity Lines release emissions from its smokestacks and exhaust systems equivalent to the pollutants caused by 12,000 cars daily. Only three of the company’s ships, ones that ply waters in ecologically sensitive Alaska, have state-of-the-art pollution control systems.

Royal Caribbean had been fined over $30 million for the illegal dumping of wastewater, garbage and oil since 1993. That will change soon as the company, the second largest of its kind in the world, will upgrade its ships’ treatment systems as they come into dry dock for regularly scheduled maintenance. The process should be complete by 2008. “We are confident today this technology economically and environmentally can treat gray water and black water to levels of purity equivalent to Alaska wastewater standards,” wrote Royal Caribbean honcho Richard Fain in a letter to Oceana in May. “We intend to have independent auditors monitor the new (Advanced Wastewater Purification) systems as they come on line, as well as reporting publicly on how the new systems are performing. I trust our actions and those of the industry are good news for you.”

Good news indeed. “The VC Reporter‘s take on our campaign against Royal Caribbean, as well as articles like it throughout the country, put a spotlight on the cruise pollution problem last year,” says Sam Haswell, spokesman for Oceana. “There’s no question that the media’s glare was a major catalyst in both our campaign victory and getting these bills through the legislature and to the governor’s desk.”

The bills Haswell refers to are a trio of successful legislative efforts to keep California’s coastal zone free of cruise ship pollution. They now sit on Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk for approval. Two of the bills are authored by Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D- Palo Alto). AB 2672, approved by the legislature on August 20, bans cruise ships from dumping treated or untreated sewage from toilets within three miles from shore until 2010. Simitian’s AB 471 prohibits cruise ships from incinerating waste off of California’s coast. Such cremated waste include a myriad of plastics that emit dioxins when burned. “This legislation stops cruise ship dumping in state waters,” Simitian said in a prepared statement. “It sends a clear message that cruise ships are welcome in California so long as they leave their wastes behind.”

On August 25, AB 2093 was also approved. The bill, authored by Assemblyman George Nakano (D-Torrance), prohibits cruise ships from ditching sewage from kitchens, sinks and showers in state waters.

California is the second biggest destination for cruise ship tourists in the nation after Florida. The number of calls to California ports jumped by more than 28 percent from 2002-2003, and is expected to increase by another 23 percent in 2004. Ventura County has been experimenting with cruise ship calls in Port Hueneme, in an attempt to generate tourist revenue. The cruise industry estimates a 25 percent increase in the number of vessels operating in California waters over the next decade. A recent survey conducted for Oceana found more than 60 percent of cruise customers want cleaner cruises and are willing to fork out more to pay for them. When informed of current laws governing cruise ship waste, 82 percent of respondents indicated the need for stronger laws.

From 1993 to 2003, cruise ships committed more than 300 violations, shelling out more than $80 million in fines and penalties. Fifty-five of these occurred in California.

Environmentalists are cautiously optimistic that Gov. Schwarzenegger will sign the legislation. “He’s playing it very close to the vest and is not saying how he will vote on these bills,” says Tim Eichenberg, a San Francisco-based environmental attorney representing Oceana. Eichenberg points out that the bills don’t saddle California with new regulations requiring a complicated regulatory process that would, for example, necessitate the issuance of permits—the legislation simply creates pollution prohibitions. The attorney also points out that, despite industry opposition, the directives shouldn’t cost cruise ship companies a nickel. “This will not effect the cruise industry’s bottom line in any way,” says Eichenberg. “They say they are already doing it.”