My Turn: Cruise ship practices need more scrutiny

Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2002

The recent dumping of partially treated sewage in Juneau's harbor by the M/V Ryndam underscores the need for vigorous monitoring and improved law enforcement. The dumping of thousands of gallons of sewage in Juneau's harbor goes beyond simple "human error" and suggests fundamental problems exist in the cruise ship industry. We need to take a fresh look at what is being dumped in the waters of our nation by the huge, foreign-flagged passenger vessels. The state of Alaska and the Congress should take immediate steps to protect the marine waters of our state and nation and stop the foreign-flagged cruise ship's pollution of American waters.

The sewage dumped by the M/V Ryndam is the most recent cruise ship pollution occurrence to take place in American waters but it's not an isolated problem. Pollution by the foreign-flagged cruise ship industry fits a pattern of abuse. For years foreign-flagged cruise ships have been dumping sewage and other waste in the waters of our nation. The long list of felony convictions for illegal dumping and other federal and state water quality violations by the foreign-flagged cruise industry are proof that the problem is serious and demands attention.

The foreign-flagged cruise industry has its public relations folks chattering about the improvements they are making to vessel marine sanitation devices. The cruise industry spin doctors are quick to point out that passenger ship tourists desire pristine waters and the cruise lines are good corporate citizens. Listening to the pious pronouncements of the cruise industry, one would almost think the primary goal of the foreign-flagged cruise industry is protection of America's marine waters and ocean resources. We all know better.

The foreign-flagged cruise industry generates tremendous revenues hauling mostly American citizens from American ports to destinations in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. These same vessels also generate huge amounts of waste products and sewage. The foreign-flagged cruise industry targets American tourists, calls on American ports and carries American passengers in American waters. Sadly, they dump sewage in our nation's waters.

Along with dumping sewage and other wastes in American waters, these foreign-flagged vessels bring a host of other problems to our shores. The recent outbreak of viral epidemics aboard some of the large cruise vessels and the necessity to quarantine ships is a problem. Many foreign-flagged cruise companies exploit foreign workers aboard their vessels by paying workers near poverty wages. Criminal activity, gambling, shoddy medical care and exploitation of workers on the foreign-flagged vessels aboard many vessels have been documented in the New York Times and other publications. Astonishingly, the foreign-flagged cruise vessels are exempt from federal and state corporate income taxes typically levied against our own nation's companies.

Solving all the problems associated with foreign-flagged cruise vessels will not be easy. Still, we can and should address the most obvious pollution problems. Two years ago, Sen. Murkowski successfully urged Congress to enact a law halting the most blatant dumping of sewage by the cruisers in the marine waters of Alaska. We need to broaden the Murkowski measure and expand coverage of this sensible law to all the marine waters of the United States. In addition, we need to provide meaningful monitoring and enforcement of our nation's maritime laws and regulations aboard foreign-flagged cruise ships that enter our nation's waters. It is high time we enact a program calling for the placement of "Ocean Rangers" on foreign-flagged cruise ships traveling in the marine waters of the United States.

The resources of the Coast Guard are spread too thin to monitor all the activities of the foreign-flagged cruisers. We need Ocean Rangers aboard foreign-flagged vessels to monitor the ship engineering plants and ensure that our nation's waters are not used for dumping sewage and bilge wastes. An Ocean Ranger program could operate much like the successful at-sea fisheries observer program that has halted depredation of fish and other marine resources in the Bering Sea and other American marine jurisdictions. Vessels operating in the waters of Alaska are required to carry state-certified pilots familiar with Alaska's marine waters. We need Ocean Rangers to protect our marine waters from illegal dumping.

Greg O'Claray of Juneau works for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association.

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