Wash. group seeks Alaska-style ship laws

Cruise ship spokesman says industry is already meeting high standards

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2005

SEATTLE - As the cruise ship business booms, Washington laws lack sufficient teeth to keep the giant vessels from polluting the state's waters, according to a new report from an environmental group.

In "Cruising for a Bruising: Why Washington Needs Laws to Protect its Waters from Cruise Ship Dumping," the nonprofit Washington Public Interest Research Group calls for tougher laws like ones Alaska and California passed in recent years.

Without stronger incentives to prevent sewage and toxic wastes from spilling, and tougher penalties for polluting, cruise ships pose too great a threat to Washington's waters and the shellfish and fishing industries that contribute nearly $2 billion a year to the state's economy, the report said.

"Washington's marine waters are too precious to the state, its citizens and its economy - and already far too endangered - to accept anything less than strong, specific and enforceable standards for what the cruise ships may leave here," a Washington Public Interest Research Group researcher wrote in a report released Thursday.

John Hansen, president of the North West CruiseShip Association, said he could not comment on the report because he had not seen it, but defended the industry's record.

"We're meeting really, really high standards," Hansen said. "If a ship has an accidental spill or a piece of malfunctioning equipment, they report it to the state and the state comes back and says, 'How are you going to correct this?' "

Last spring, several cruise lines signed a voluntary agreement with the state Department of Ecology that, among other things, bans all wastewater discharges unless vessels are equipped with advanced treatment systems certified by the Coast Guard.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has no provisions for penalizing ships that break the rules, and not all ships that sail through Pacific Northwest waters signed onto it.

Chris Wells, a WashPIRG oceans specialist who wrote the report, noted that there have been three wastewater discharge violations since the agreement was signed in April.

Both cruise ships involved in the three violations had advanced sewage treatment systems and reported the mistakes. The Princess Line detailed steps it would take to prevent problems in the future. The other discharge, from a Holland America Line ship, happened in Port Angeles and hinged on paperwork and a provision the state agreed to revise, clarifying that it applies to all ports of call in Washington, not just Seattle.

"All of these violations of the MOU would not have been known to us if we didn't have the agreement in place, which gives us a view of the ship operations we didn't have before," Ecology spokesman Larry Altose said.

Hawaii and Florida have voluntary agreements with cruise lines similar to Washington's. There were 16 violations of Hawaii's pact the first year it went into effect, the report said.

In Alaska, where cruise ships can be fined up to $100,000 each time they dump untreated sewage, wastewater discharge violations dropped from 39 between 1999 and 2001 to just one from 2002-2003, the report said.

Washington's Ecology Department has recommended retaining the state's voluntary agreement for another year to see if it's effective.

State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, is sponsoring a bill that would strengthen the memorandum by tying it to the state's Water Pollution Control Act, making any large ships that violate the law subject to fines of up to $10,000 a day.

"I think there is a hole in state law because we just have an MOU and we rely on the good will of the people who rely on the memorandum," Dickerson said. "CEOs come and go, and the next CEO may not feel like complying."

WashPIRG's report urges legislators to pass Dickerson's bill and create a system of charging cruise passengers $1-2 each to cover the costs of a more stringent state monitoring program, a fee system similar to one Alaska started a few years ago.

The report said California had the most comprehensive laws, including bans on the dumping of sewage sludge, oily bilge water and hazardous wastes in state waters.

Last year, California banned the discharge of "graywater" from laundries, showers, sinks and dishwashers, as well as treated or untreated "blackwater," or sewage, and outlawed the use of onboard waste incinerators while ships are within two miles of shore. Violations can bring of up to $25,000 per violation.

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