With new signings, the Governator throws a line to California’s coast

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – September 30, 2004

SS Poopsalot

Under President George W. Bush, environmental victories are getting fewer and further between, but don’t tell that to Washington, D.C.-based Oceana, a non-profit organization formed by actor Ted Danson. Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger delighted environmentalists by signing a trio of bills that the group has been championing to protect California’s coast from pollution emanating from cruise ships. This follows on the heels of Oceana’s campaign against Royal Caribbean for its polluting ways, which 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 previously reported in this newspaper (“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 also 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 each of the 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. “Fortunately, this was an issue that publications like Los Angeles CityBeat and ValleyBeat took interest in and aggressively reported,” says Sam Haswell, spokesman for Oceana. “That kind of media pressure is invaluable in the fight for reform, and we’re seeing the results with the signing of these California laws. The California legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger deserve great credit for recognizing the breadth of the cruise pollution problem and having the courage to fix it.”

The bills Haswell refers to are a trio of successful legislative efforts to keep California’s coastal zone free of cruise ship pollution. Last week, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed them into law. Two of the bills were authored by Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D- Palo Alto). AB 2672 bans cruise ships from dumping treated or untreated sewage from toilets within three miles from shore until 2010. Such effluent contains excessive amounts of bacteria, pathogens, and heavy metals, and contaminates seafood, destroys coral reefs and leads to beach closures and other severe marine and public health difficulties.

Simitian’s AB 471 prohibits cruise ships from incinerating waste off of California’s coast, much of which blows toward shore on the sea breeze. Such cremated waste includes myriad plastics that emit dioxins when burned. Dioxins are some of the most toxic chemicals known to science and no level of the poisons are considered safe for human health. “These laws ensure that, even as the industry continues to grow, it won’t be at the expense of our air and water quality,” Simitian said in a statement last week. “Simply put, these bills protect the environment, the public health and the economic vitality of our coast.”

Schwarzenegger also signed AB 2093 into law last week. The bill, authored by Assemblyman George Nakano (D-Torrance), prohibits cruise ships from ditching sewage from kitchens, sinks, showers, and laundries 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. 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.

According to Oceana and its partner in this sea struggle, San Francisco-based Blue Water Network, stronger laws are overdue. From 1993 to 2003, cruise ships committed more than 300 acts of dumping oil, garbage, hazardous waste, sewage, and gray water, shelling out more than $80 million in fines and penalties. Fifty-five of these violations occurred in California. Despite the cruise industry’s claim that they maintain a voluntary policy of no-discharge in state waters, several cruise companies have violated this policy in recent years.

Environmentalists note that one reason Schwarzenegger signed the triad of legislation is that they fit in with the governor’s vision for less yet more effective government. The bills don’t saddle California with new regulations requiring, for example, the issuance of permits – the legislation simply creates pollution prohibitions, according to Tim Eichenberg, a San Francisco-based environmental attorney representing Oceana. The attorney also points out that, despite industry opposition, the directives shouldn’t cost cruise ship companies a nickel. “This will not affect the cruise industry’s bottom line in any way,” says Eichenberg. “They say they are already doing it.”

Flush with victory, Oceana is moving on to other seaworthy initiatives. The group, which has more than 200,000 members and e-activists in over 150 countries, is combating to stop so-called “Dirty Fishing,” the accidental catch of non-targeted fish and other sea life by commercial fishermen which are usually thrown overboard dead or dying. It is estimated that Dirty Fishing, also known as “by catch,” results in the accidental death and waste of 44 million pounds of sea life worldwide every year, though exact figures in the U.S. are difficult to come by.

Oceana’s other current campaign is to stop destructive bottom trawling, a harmful form of industrial fishing in which huge nets are dragged indiscriminately across broad swaths of the ocean floor, destroying anything and everything in their path, including ancient coral reefs that take hundreds to thousands of years to regenerate.

“As for cruise pollution, we’ll of course continue to push for federal legislation that would level the playing field for the entire cruise industry and states across the country,” says Oceana’s Haswell. “And we will always support and advocate for stronger state laws like those now enacted in Alaska and California.”