Ocean activists target sewage dumping by Royal Caribbean ‘sludge boats’

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – November 26, 2003

Ship of StoolsThey are called “cities on the sea,” ocean liners carrying up to 5,000 travelers on a cruise vacation of a lifetime. Pampered by gobs of buffet grub, casinos, nightclubs, spas, and every imaginable kind of trendy shop, passengers enjoy a luxurious journey plying apparently pristine waters as they head for exotic ports o’ call. But according to ocean-ecology activists, they might as well be dubbed floating port-a-potties, as the ships spew tons of pollutants into the high seas and into the air.

On November 19, two dozen activists gathered on the Santa Monica Pier, sporting “Potty Train Royal Caribbean” badges, to launch a new effort to reform the cruiseline company’s leisurely dumping practices. With an airplane circling overhead towing a banner that read “Got Sewage? Royal Caribbean Dumps Daily,” the rally was part of a year-old campaign, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Oceana, to stop the ocean liners from dumping tons of human and man-made waste into the ocean every day.

“Santa Monica has made extraordinary efforts to avoid urban discharges into our ocean,” said Kevin McKeown, mayor pro tem of Santa Monica. “It’s galling to know these cruise ships are dumping offshore.”

By all accounts, the scale of the problem is immense. A cruise ship can discharge 30,000 gallons of sewage, called “black water,” into the sea daily. 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. The daily dumping includes 7,000 gallons of oily bilge water, 265,000 gallons of ballast water that includes non-native aquatic animals and plants from faraway tourist destinations, and seven tons of solid waste and garbage. The group also reports that the 26 ships in Royal Caribbean’s International and Celebrity lines release emissions from their smokestacks and exhaust systems equivalent to the pollutants caused by 12,000 cars daily.

Oceana has targeted Royal Caribbean because it is the biggest cruise line, and have now undertaken a pledge drive to force the company to clean up its act. The organization has leafleted cruise-ship ports including Boston, Seattle, New York, Vancouver, San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Miami – where Royal Caribbean is based. According to the International Council of Cruise Lines, 538,000 boats embarked last year from the port of Los Angeles, the state’s largest cruise port.

“We’ve targeted Royal Caribbean because they’ve touted themselves as an environmental leader in the cruise industry,” says Sam Haswell, spokesman Oceana. “I think the record shows this not to be the case. That, and being one of the largest cruise companies, they could set a great example for the rest of the industry.” Oceana has already collected 4,000 new pledges from Californians to not patronize Royal Caribbean, with a goal to acquire 100,000 pledges nationwide. In October, nearly 250 University of Southern California students protested the company’s practices. “Californians care deeply about the seas, and they have been a driving force in this campaign,” states Dana DuBose, Oceana’s cruise pollution campaign director in a November 19 press release. “We want to focus their anger and show Royal Caribbean that they will not continue to get away with harming the very oceans on which their profits depend.”

Naturally, Royal Caribbean disputes Oceana’s contentions. “We believe Oceana has seriously misrepresented Royal Caribbean’s environmental practices,” says Michael J. Sheehan in a written statement sent to CityBeat. “We have met with representatives of the group and tried to educate them about our policies and procedures but have been frustrated by these discussions. We would like to resolve our differences and look forward to future opportunities to discuss these issues.”

Cruise liners enjoy a unique situation when it comes to pollution emissions. They are exempt from the nation’s water pollution control law, the Clean Water Act. They are only required to treat human waste with a Marine Sanitation Device (MSD), and gray water can be discharged anywhere without treatment, according to Oceana. In a recent survey of black-water sewage treated by MSDs, 68 out of 70 samples failed to meet federal water-quality criteria. More than 70 percent of gray-water samples exceeded federal limits, with some of the goo exceeding standards by as much as 50,000 times.

In August, the company broke off negotiations with Oceana after a seven-month dialogue with the group. Oceana wanted an end to dumping, albeit legally, raw sewage more than three miles offshore and to install modern wastewater systems on Royal Caribbean’s ships over a multi-year period. The company does have state-of-the-art waste systems on three of its ships that service Alaska, due to that state’s rigorous requirements, which were put in place partly because of the Exxon Valdez disaster. The company seems to believe it will be spared the negative publicity concerning its pollution practices, a view not shared by some industry analysts. “Shareholder value could be hurt by the perception that Royal Caribbean pollutes the seas,” stated Reed Bolton Byrum, president of the Public Relations Society of America and a leading governance authority, in an oceana press release following the collapse of the talks. “As Warren Buffett said – ‘If you lose dollars for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless.’ Royal Caribbean’s reputation is on the line.”

What puzzles activists is that the cost of updating the ships’ waste systems is relatively inexpensive. According to Royal Caribbean and its technology subcontractor, it would cost about $2 million per ship. To retrofit its entire fleet, Royal Caribbean would be out the price of a can of soda per passenger per day over half a decade. Plus, as Oceana points out, the company would avoid the bad press and fines it has incurred over its pollution practices. Royal Caribbean has been fined more than $30 million for the illegal dumping of wastewater, garbage, and oil since 1993. This pollution adds to the fouling of beach water, human illness, and disease and death in marine populations. Such sewage leads to shellfish bed closures, coral reef devastation, and “dead zones,” where the lack of oxygen annihilates marine ecosystems.

This would seem to be a relatively small expense for a company flush with profits. In 2002, Royal Caribbean earned $3.4 billion, a 9.2 percent increase over the previous year. Its net income was $351.3 million, an increase of 38 percent over 2001. The publicly traded cruise line spent $167.4 million on advertising last year, which is more than $3 million per each ship in its fleet. These figures are hardly surprising: The cruise industry has had an average growth of 8.4 percent per year over the last two decades.

The Cruise Lines Industry Association reported that more than two million Americans cruised in the third quarter of 2002, nearly a 17 percent increase from the year before. The nation’s ports processed 5.9 million cruise embarkations in 2001, up 11 percent from the year before. Approximately 82 percent of the global cruising public are U.S. residents with 43 percent of those vacationers coming from the East Coast and 21 percent being from Midwestern states.

According to Oceana, a majority of cruise-ship travelers also care about cruiseship pollution. In a recent national poll conducted by the organization, 90 percent of the passengers surveyed believed the liners should upgrade their waste treatment systems to more efficiently treat sewage before it is dumped into the ocean. Nearly 75 percent of those polled don’t want cruise ships to dump waste anywhere on the high seas.

“While cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean may contribute in some measure to local economic growth, we also need to be conscious of the costs to our cities and coastal waters,” says DuBose. “Economic growth should not be achieved at the expense of public health and environment.”