A Celebrity Cruises ship has been operating out of compliance with the so-called Murkowski law on marine discharges, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
But the infraction, the third known violation of the federal law this year by a cruise company, was slight and apparently was the result of miscommunication.
The Mercury, which has been outfitted with a cutting-edge "reverse osmosis" system for treating wastewater, has been discharging continuously in the Inside Passage, including in port.
Treated blackwater, or toilet waste, and untreated graywater aren't supposed to be discharged in the Inside Passage except when ships are traveling more than a mile from shore and at a speed of at least 6 knots. Congress passed the law on cruise ship operations in December at the urging of Alaska U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski.
The Murkowski law makes exceptions for companies that can demonstrate treatment results that drastically reduce pollutants, such as fecal coliform bacteria.
An official of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity's parent company, said she thought the Celebrity had provided the necessary data on the combined blackwater-graywater discharge from the Mercury and had gotten the go-ahead from the U.S. Coast Guard, which enforces the Murkowski law.
On April 5, the company turned in test results for the Galaxy, another ship with the same technology, said Nancy Wheatley, senior vice president for Royal Caribbean. The Coast Guard responded that the test results were satisfactory, Wheatley said. At the time, the Mercury was in South America, where the company didn't have the capacity to do the testing, she said.
On May 9, the Mercury's wastewater was tested in San Juan and the results were forwarded to the Coast Guard, with no negative reaction, Wheatley said. Then about two weeks ago, the Coast Guard did its own sampling of the Mercury under a voluntary environmental compliance program run in cooperation with the state. On Monday, Celebrity's Miami office was notified that the ship wasn't within the necessary parameters, Wheatley said.
In general, the numbers looked good, said Lt. Cmdr. Spencer Wood of the Coast Guard. But the pH level was slightly off, showing the treated water to be more acidic than permitted under the Murkowski law for discharging within a mile of shore, Wood said. "They're very close. It's a very picayune point here, but it's the law."
The company could be assessed a penalty based on the number of times it discharged within a mile of shore, Wood said.
Wheatley said the Celebrity might have neglected to sample for pH on the Mercury.
"We really did think we had touched all of the bases," she said. "To the extent we didn't, it really is our screw-up. ... You spend so much time with these things, and one little thing comes back to bite you."
The Mercury, which docked in Juneau on Sunday, has stopped discharging near shore for the remainder of its Alaska voyage, Wheatley said. Most discharges will be 12 miles out and none closer than three miles, until more sampling can be done and the problem resolved, she said.
Royal Caribbean's vessel Radiance of the Seas, which docked in Juneau on Monday, already was observing the company's general policy of not discharging within 12 miles, even though its treated blackwater can meet the federal standards for discharging over a mile off-shore, Wheatley said.
A new graywater treatment technology on the ship has been tested, but so far the results for biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand aren't acceptable, said chief engineer Kevin Gorman.
Until the past year, cruise ships made no attempt to treat graywater, which is collected from sinks, galleys, showers and laundries and which was considered to be relatively harmless. But the state's wastewater sampling program last year found that in some cases graywater was indistinguishable from raw sewage.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.