Water, water everywhere, but where does the wastewater go?
Critics of the cruise ship industry say the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard don't do enough to regulate the disposal of millions of tons of waste generated annually.
This is hardly the kind of thing you want to think about when you ship off and head out on the sunny high seas on one of the thousands of adventures the cruise industry sold last year. But as the worldwide cruise ship fleet has grown to some 230 vessels, which now carry up to 5,000 passengers, the volume of waste has grown along with it.
Cruise Lines International Association, a marketing group for the industry, said 10.6 million people set sail on a cruise in 2004, an 11 percent increase from the previous year.
A large ship (3,000 or more onboard) can generate over a week 210,000 gallons of sewage -- also known as black water. An additional 1 million gallons a week of so-called gray water, wastewater from laundries, sinks and showers, can also be produced, plus quantities of hazardous waste, solid waste and oily bilge water.
A patchwork of federal regulations and international agreements govern how waste must be treated before it is discharged from a cruise ship. States also can impose "no discharge" zones with EPA approval.
Ships are allowed to discharge treated sewage within three nautical miles of shore; outside that boundary, they can dump raw sewage. Gray water is not considered sewage and can be disposed of anywhere.
The cruise industry said it has additional voluntary policies to rid ships of waste safely, such as not discharging untreated gray water within four miles of shore. But environmental groups have been pressing the EPA to regulate more stringently and for cruise lines to update their current treatment systems.
"The public is not aware of all the problems with cruise ships. It's a classic polluting industry that has little oversight from regulators who should be cracking down on them," said Russell Long, vice president of the Bluewater Network, an environmental group.
The industry said it has cleaned up its act since some prominent cruise lines were hit with major fines in the late 1990s for polluting. "That served as a wake-up call to the cruise industry," said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, which represents 16 cruise line companies. "We took steps to exceed environmental laws and procedures from all over the world."
Ross Klein, professor of social work at Memorial University of Newfoundland who runs a Web site called Cruisejunkie.com, said the industry works at projecting a clean image, but the lack of monitoring makes it tough for regulators to pin down violations.
Environmental groups are pushing for passage of a law to add more stringent requirements on how sewage must be treated and where it can be discharged. For instance, it would not allow treated or untreated sewage to be discharged within 12 nautical miles of shore. Beyond that distance, a new standard would be set to treat the waste before it is disposed. The bill, introduced in the House and Senate in April, is similar to one that did not receive much support last year.
Most cruise ships are equipped with marine sanitation devices to treat sewage. Their performance standards are set by the EPA, and the Coast Guard oversees the design, installation and operation of the devices as part of its overall vessel inspections.
The Coast Guard administered 185 compliance exams last year, down from 246 in 2000.
"The solution to the problem is to make some rules these guys have to follow. This is the 21st century. We need to update to state-of-the-art advanced treatment devices," said Jackie Savitz, director of an anti-pollution campaign run by Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization.
Oceana ran a public campaign against Royal Caribbean to get the cruise line, which was fined for illegal discharges (not sewage), to install advanced treatment devices. Royal Caribbean agreed last year to install the systems on all 29 of its ships. The company said it disposes of certain wastes beyond 12 nautical miles.
In 2000, the Bluewater Network and other groups petitioned the EPA to formally assess the problem, especially the adequacy of existing rules and discharge procedures.
Since then, the agency has conducted studies and held public meetings. In a March 3, 2003, presentation in Miami Beach, Fla., EPA officials released preliminary conclusions that said one possibility would be to ask Congress to set national standards for black and gray water.
Officials at the agency, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said the agency might propose standards for discharges of sewage and gray water for Alaskan waters. It has sampled discharges from four vessels in Alaska and hopes to have the results by fall. It also is preparing an economic impact analysis of the cost of any new rule.
The cruise industry, which is dominated by Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines, said many of the companies are installing the new treatment technology. Crye said advances have been made in treatment and disposal that leave the remains of some marine sewage cleaner than what comes out of municipal water systems.
"In 2001, we developed waste management practices and procedures for all waste at sea . . . and put them in each ship's safety management system, which is required to be documented and available to enforcement officials anywhere the vessel operates," Crye said.
Crye said 40 of 120 cruise ships are now equipped with advanced treatment devices. But the units cost $3 million to $5 million apiece, and Crye said the industry is hesitant to install them until it knows whether there will be a new EPA standard for cleaning up discharges.