My Turn: Are cruise companies clean enough?

Scrutiny needed for cruise industry

Posted: Wednesday, September 06, 2000

On Friday, Juneau takes center stage regarding a national environmental issue. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has selected only Miami, Los Angeles and Juneau to hold hearings on cruise ship water pollution. Juneau's hearing is from 7 to 10 p.m. at Centennial Hall.

Cruise ship pollution has gained notoriety in the past year and this public hearing gives Southeast Alaska a chance to influence national policy. In the last decade, the cruise ship industry's presence in Southeast Alaska has grown considerably. Today's ships can transport more than 3,000 passengers and crew. With more than 400 visits by 22 ships to Juneau each summer, there's a lot of sewage and hazardous waste that must be disposed.

The Juneau hearing is significant in light of recent ship sampling under Alaska's Cruise Ship Initiative. Tests found alarming levels of fecal coliform bacteria in graywater (from sinks, showers, and laundry) and "treated" blackwater (from toilets). Samples from some vessels had a fecal coliform count as high as 9 million colonies in a 100 milliliter sample. For comparison, Juneau's Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Facility permit allows a daily maximum fecal coliform discharge of 800 colonies per sample.

More troubling is the sampling indicated massive amounts of fecal coliform, some counts as high as 24 million colonies, in one ships' galley graywater. That's more than 100,000 times the acceptable federal level.

Cruise ships produce massive amounts of waste. According to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, a voyage on a typical ship generates approximately: 210,000 gallons of raw and treated sewage, 1 million gallons of graywater, 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water, 110 gallons of photo chemicals, five gallons of dry-cleaning waste, 10 gallons of used paints, and five gallons of expired chemicals. In the past seven years, thousands of gallons of untreated graywater, dangerous chemicals, and oily bilge water have been dumped, both illegally and legally, directly into Southeast Alaska's waters.

Regulatory controls for cruise ships are not clearly defined. Laws applying to discharges from foreign-flagged vessels are a complicated maze of international treaties and standards, and fall under the jurisdiction of several federal agencies. The Clean Water Act directs some regulation of blackwater discharges but none for graywater; the state's responsibility to regulate discharges from large cruise ships is equally unclear.

That's why the EPA is holding this hearing. EPA needs to hear that there must be a clear authority and permits that regulate cruise ship waste. EPA can require federal permitting of ships' wastewater just like it regulates all other point source discharges. Many ship wastes are specifically exempted from the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program.

According to EPA's white paper, "The NPDES vessel exclusion was premised on the assumption that vessel discharges, including gray water, were minor sources of pollutants as compared to other discharges." The recent test results indicate otherwise.

While Juneau is in the middle of the cruise ship controversy, national attention has also focused on these discharges within the last year. Following an $18 million pollution fine in 1999, guilty pleadings to seven felony counts of illegal dumping of hazardous waste, and violations of the Clean Water Act by various lines in the cruise ship industry, the General Accounting Office in February issued a report on cruise ships and marine pollution. In response to a petition by grassroots and national groups, EPA released a Cruise Ship White Paper, and invited citizens to comment at the three September hearings.

For millennia, the rich marine waters of Southeast Alaska have supported commercial, recreational, and subsistence uses. It is vital that we all know what's being dumped in our water to ensure the long-term health of Southeast Alaska's rich marine water and fish habitat.

Sarah Keeney is the water quality and mining grassroots organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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