SEATTLE - State regulators have examined the sewage system of a cruise ship that earlier this month dumped more than 40 tons of human waste into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The Department of Ecology is reviewing samples taken from the Norwegian Sun to determine whether penalties should be imposed, agency spokesman Larry Altose said Monday. The investigation is expected to take several weeks.
The 853-foot cruise ship returned to Seattle on Sunday, allowing investigators to inspect the vessel for the first time.
It's unknown whether the spill caused ecological damage, Altose said, noting that strong tides and swift currents likely dispersed the waste quickly.
Coast Guard investigators plan to review whether the ship's crew used proper procedures to ensure safe and legal operation. Coast Guard attorneys also are determining if the ship was within Coast Guard jurisdiction when it dumped the waste more than three miles northwest of Port Townsend, spokesman Lt. Scott Casad said.
Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Lines insists the discharge was accidental and not illegal. Company policy bars wastewater releases within 12 miles of shore and requires treatment of sewage before discharge.
Cruise ships do not routinely pump sewage into city sewers in Seattle, nor do they have permits to dump into state waters. Federal law allows dumping at least three miles out to sea.
It was unclear which law applies in the strait, which runs between Canada's Vancouver Island and Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
The Norwegian Sun was en route to Seattle when the May 3 spill occured.
An engineer aboard the 3,200-passenger ship opened valves to release what he thought was "gray water" from sinks and showers, apparently unaware that the tank had been upgraded for raw sewage from toilets.
Norwegian Cruise Lines has been cited twice in the past two years for illegal dumping.
In July the company pleaded guilty to a felony and agreed to pay a $1 million fine in Miami after investigators found an officer on the SS Norway circumvented a pollution-prevention device to dump oil and falsified waste-disposal records.
In 2001, the Norwegian Sky released treated sewage containing hundreds of times more pollutants than allowed by federal law while sailing between Juneau and Ketchikan. The result was tougher Alaska restrictions on dumping by cruise ships.