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Making a Stink 

What effect does ship waste have on our coastal waters? As New Orleans embraces the cruise line industry, it's time to ask the No. 1 question about No. 2.

ON A BRIGHT SUNDAY AFTERNOON, the Port of New Orleans' cruise ship terminal is bustling with porters and service personnel preparing two ships for embarkation. The 2,974-passenger Carnival Conquest, the biggest cruise ship to make New Orleans its homeport, towers above the wharf. Passengers on the 13th and topmost floor stand at eye level with the traffic on the Crescent City Connection. Directly behind the Carnival Conquest is the Norwegian Dream, the latest addition to New Orleans' port. Only slightly less grand, the Dream holds 1,748 passengers.

City and state officials welcome the sight of visitors streaming in to the terminal. In his State of the City address last May, Mayor Ray Nagin stated: "New Orleans is proving to be one of America's great cruise ship ports. With the Port of New Orleans, we are examining ways that we can make this city an even bigger magnet for the cruise industry by building multiple cruise terminals along the river." The port is currently considering building an additional terminal in the Bywater.

Barbara Roy, assistant secretary of the Office of Tourism, echoes the mayor's optimism, calling the cruise ship industry "a wonderful niche market for Louisiana." A recent study by the International Council of Cruise Lines puts the economic benefits to the state at $554 million in goods and services during 2001. A Port-commissioned study predicts a 300 percent increase in cruise business in New Orleans in the next three to five years.

But a potentially noxious impact goes unseen and largely unconsidered. Every day, each cruise ship generates about 30,000 gallons of sewage, or blackwater. In addition, each boat produces up to 255,000 gallons of wastewater from showers, sinks, galleys and laundries, collectively known as graywater. The waste travels from the cruise ships into the ocean -- just a few miles offshore. How is the waste processed and filtered, if at all? What effect does it have on marine life, oyster beds, the "dead zone" and even swimming areas? To the government, the public -- even local environmentalists -- these are brand-new questions.

THE CLEAN WATER ACT OF 1972 codified a growing understanding that the environment was not a vast sponge capable of taking anything we dish out. On land, this led to more sophisticated sewage treatment plants. For ships, it meant the first regulations of discharge: within three miles of the coast, sewage had to be treated to a certain standard by a marine sanitation device (MSD) before being released. Beyond three miles, the dumping of raw sewage was still permitted, and graywater could be released anywhere without treatment. The national regulations for cruise ships have not changed substantially since then. "I think it's fair to say that the regulations are quite old and should be updated," says Craig Vogt, deputy director of the Oceans and Coastal Protection Division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Dana Dubose serves as the cruise pollution campaign director for the national environmental group Oceana. The public has no assurance that companies are following even the lax regulations, she says. Ships aren't required to keep logbooks recording the times and places of sewage discharges. Furthermore, says Dubose, nobody's really sure what's coming out of the boats. "The company audits and outside inspections still don't tell you exactly what they're dumping," she says. "They don't do any testing of the effluent." Without testing the sewage coming out of the pipes, there's no way of knowing if the ships are breaking the rules, Dubose says.

Three cruise lines now operate out of New Orleans: Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. Each emphasizes that its corporate policy exceeds the national and international standards for wastewater. Industry spokespeople say Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships discharge graywater and treated blackwater at least 12 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River, and representatives say they never discharge raw sewage. Norwegian says it discharges graywater and treated blackwater four miles from shore, and untreated blackwater 12 miles out, but its corporate standards are changing as the company upgrades its technology.

Dubose isn't convinced. Surpassing an outdated regulation isn't much to brag about, she argues. Speaking specifically about Royal Caribbean, she says: "They have this policy in place and it's great, and I'm sure that they try to follow it. But they're not legally required to, and there's no testing being done, so there's that concern. The second concern is that it doesn't really matter how far out they are, they're not treating it adequately."

Between 1998 and 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice brought a spate of lawsuits against the largest cruise lines for illegally and deliberately discharging oily bilge water into the ocean, falsifying record books and making false statements to the Coast Guard. Royal Caribbean, which also pled guilty to dumping toxic chemicals, was fined a total of $30.5 million. Carnival was fined $18 million. Norwegian self-reported its violations to the Department of Justice and received a $1.5 million fine.

Several states -- including California, Maine, Florida and Hawaii -- are beginning to look at the issue of cruise ship waste. Both California and Maine have considered state legislation. But no state restricts cruise lines like Alaska: in 2001, both state and federal legislation banned the discharge of untreated blackwater and graywater in Alaska's state waters. Treated sewage is now held to a high standard, which the Coast Guard monitors in surprise inspections.

The Alaska legislation resulted from groundbreaking research that revealed the extent of the problem. Michele Brown served as commissioner of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation at the time. "Juneau, which is the capital, is a very small town, it's only 30,000 people," Brown says. "In the summer, it's just wall-to-wall cruise ships. My window overlooked [the harbor], and every year I saw the ships getting bigger and bigger, with more and more people. So I'd go down and ask my staff, 'What do we know about them?' And the answer was always, 'Well, we don't know anything because nobody regulates them or studies them.' I felt that as environmental commissioner it was unacceptable not to know."

The major cruise lines agreed to participate in a sampling program to determine if their MSDs were treating sewage to the standards set by the Clean Water Act. "They assured us, of course, that there was absolutely no problem," says Brown. "So we said, 'Well, let's get some data. And if there's no problem then all the better.'"

The results were shocking. Twenty-one cruise ships were sampled twice throughout the year. Of the 42 samples, only one was in compliance with both the levels set for fecal bacteria and "suspended solids," or particles of fecal matter. After reviewing the high levels of fecal bacteria in blackwater samples, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation concluded that the MSDs weren't working.

Even more disturbing, says Brown, "the graywater looked more like raw sewage than raw sewage in many places." Graywater discharge had never been regulated because it was assumed to be benign, but nine of the samples exceeded the standards for fecal bacteria by 50,000 times. "You don't want to think about that," says Brown. "You get off these boats and swim around, it's just gross."

These findings outraged the Alaskan public and led directly to the new legislation, which mandates that any ship wishing to discharge wastewater within Alaska's inside passage must be equipped with an advanced wastewater treatment system. Those systems have become the gold standard, and several cruise lines have fitted some of their ships with the new technology in order to remain competitive in Alaska.

But the problem is far from resolved. "Unfortunately the bulk of [the ships] have opted instead to just go out and discharge at three miles (where the ships can continue using the old MSDs)," Brown says.

DOES DISCHARGING SEWAGE into the ocean cause any real harm? The cruise industry denies any damage, pointing to recent studies by the EPA and the state of Alaska that found that sewage discharged by a vessel moving at six knots is highly diluted, rendering it innocuous.

The Alaska study, an appendix to a lengthy report that repeatedly recommends that ships upgrade to advanced treatment systems, found that small ships were the worst offenders, because they tended to dump their treated sewage while stationary. Cruise ship spokespeople say the study validates their industry.

"The Alaska Scientific Advisory Panel did a study, it's called the Whole Effluent Toxicity Study, which said that there are no expected harmful effects from what's coming out of cruise ships," says Richard Pruitt, director of environmental programs of Royal Caribbean. "They said it was the small ships who had the worst discharges, and that they should try to be more like the big ships."

That's not good enough for Dubose at Oceana. "You have a certain cumulative effect of pollutants in the marine environment, and sewage can cause harm to marine mammals, to shellfish, it can close beaches, it can damage corals," she says. "For the same reason you can't say that a car on the highway is causing global warming -- we know that there are cumulative impacts, and we know what pollutants are contributing to global warming even though we may not be able to pinpoint it to my Honda."

No studies have been performed in Louisiana's coastal waters. Two issues of local concern are whether cruise ship effluents can contaminate oyster beds, and whether the nutrients released in the blackwater and graywater contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Marilyn Kilgen, head of the department of biological science at Nicholls State University and an expert on seafood safety and pathogens, says there might be reason for unease. It all depends on how far out the sewage is discharged and how well it's treated, she says. "I know it seems like when you're three miles off shore nothing can ever come back to the beaches and oyster beds," she says. "But a few years ago someone did a study in the Northeast, because they'd been hauling raw sewage off shore in barges and dumping it. That was five, ten miles off shore, and it was washing back. They kept finding viruses for years."

IN THE MOST COMMON MSD, the wastewater is first sucked into a holding tank and cycled through the tank several times until all the solids have been separated into tiny particles. From there, it is sent to the treatment tank where it's disinfected with chlorine, and pumped overboard. Complaints about this system range from high rates of malfunction to charges that it releases a high concentration of chlorine into the ocean, which may have a harmful effect on marine life.

For a cruise line wishing to upgrade to an advanced wastewater treatment system, several options exist. In a reverse osmosis system, a high-pressure pump forces water through a membrane, leaving the undesirable particles behind. In a tertiary system, at least three technologies are used in sequence to clean the water, including filtration, flotation and UV disinfection. The effluent is constantly measured both by an on-board system and by the off-site manufacturer, via modem. In a coup de grace, the disinfected sludge produced by this system can be dried and sold as fertilizer.

Norwegian Cruise Line is opting for the tertiary system for each of its 11 boats, says Peter Randall, vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs. "We have four ships that are operating right now that have been equipped with advanced wastewater treatment systems that basically treat both [graywater and blackwater] to drinking water levels," he says. "There's a fifth one being done now." The New Orleans-based Norwegian Dream, as well as the remainder of the fleet, will be outfitted with the advanced technology by the end of 2004, at a cost of $2 million to $3 million per ship, Randall says.

"Three years ago we came under new ownership and we did a complete turnaround, both on environmental and safety stuff," says Randall. "If the public doesn't want the image of the ocean having toilet water or galley water or anything else in it, then we want to be there and do that."

Royal Caribbean has three of its 18 ships fitted with advanced systems; Carnival has fitted just one of its 18 ships. Representatives from both companies say they're working with manufacturers to refine the wastewater systems. "You cannot go out to Home Depot and buy an advanced water treatment system and put it on a ship," says Pruitt, of Royal Caribbean. "We're continuing to work with the vendors. To try to rush into picking any one technology is a mistake."

Both companies point to other environmental successes. Royal Caribbean has pioneered the use of cleaner burning gas turbine engines, and plans to have eight ships outfitted with the new technology by March. Royal Caribbean also has a program called the Ocean Fund, which has given out $8 million in annual and one-time grants to environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society. Carnival emphasizes its garbage management, specifically its work with shore-side suppliers to reduce packaging and increase recycling.

Dana Dubose calls Norwegian's commitment to upgrade its fleet "encouraging," but says she is not yet ready to "point to any one company and say that they're a model for the industry." In 2002, Oceana noted Royal Caribbean's environmental initiatives and singled the company out for a series of talks about upgrading wastewater technology and improving monitoring. The discussions broke off when the two parties couldn't agree on a timetable or on what constitutes independent monitoring. Royal Caribbean has hired an outside auditor to review its environmental systems, as mandated by its plea bargain with the Department of Justice. Oceana would like to see the auditors check the effluent, and would prefer that a third party (who's not getting paid by Royal Caribbean) look over the audit reports regularly.

Richard Pruitt says the last thing the ships need is yet another audit. "Our ships have about 50 audits per year, and that doesn't even count all the state representatives who come on board," he says. He acknowledges that only some of those audits include inspections of the MSDs -- many audits check on safety, security and health regulations -- but says that the Coast Guard inspections, company audits and state inspections should reassure the public that there's plenty of oversight.

However, a telephone tour of Louisiana state agencies raises doubt about local vigilance. The state Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Health and Hospitals (which regulates land-based sewage), all deny not only oversight, but also any knowledge of the issue. Barbara Roy says the Office of Tourism has worked closely with the cruise lines and the port over the last few years, but that she's not aware of anyone at the state level who's concerned about the ships' wastewater practices. "I assume the cruise lines are taking care of it," she says.

In the city, Yarrow Etheredge of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs says there's been no discussion of the cruise ships' sewage practices. She adds that the mayor's office is working on other environmental initiatives, including a diesel fuel additive that could drastically reduce emissions from the ships' engines. "We'd definitely want to look at all the environmental impacts and work with the industry on this," she says of the sewage issue.

In fact, the Coast Guard appears to be the only government agency currently checking that the cruise industry is meeting the standards. Ron Fogan, a lieutenant in the Coast Guard's Eighth Division, conducts many of those twice-yearly inspections. "If they have all the equipment and it's running and all the test lights and everything works on it, then you think that the system is working," says Fogan. As for testing the effluent, he says: "I don't have any guidelines to do that. I've got to go by the rules that I have."

Robert Jumonville, director of cruise operations at the Port of New Orleans, doesn't believe the cruise ships need any stricter standards, and says there's no reason to think that the cruise ships are polluting Louisiana waters. "All of the modern cruise ships are cleaner than most of your buildings that were built in the United States," he says. "They have very rigid standards on what they have to do with their waste products when they discharge. They all have huge MSDs that work better than our sewage systems. They're clean."

IF A LOCAL SCIENTIFIC STUDY ever takes place, and if it finds a cause for concern in the cruise ships' discharge policy, Louisiana could legislate a no-discharge zone in state waters, as California is currently considering. The Clean Water Act gives states this recourse, provided they receive EPA approval.

The cruise industry favors voluntary standards -- such as the memoranda of understanding (MOU) recently signed with Florida and Hawaii in which the cruise lines agree to abide by certain environmental standards and to police themselves. Richard Pruitt touts the benefits of this system: "A state probably gets better protection from a MOU than it gets from legislation. A state can ask for more than they are entitled to constitutionally." Pruitt says that although the state only has the right to regulate discharges in the state waters up to three miles out, Florida's agreement with the cruise lines prohibits the discharge of blackwater for an additional mile.

Dubose has doubts about the Florida MOU. "I don't want to be cynical, but it seems like the industry has created very good sounding policies and procedures in order to give the public a sense of security." Without any enforcement or monitoring mechanisms, she says, the voluntary agreements are hollow. "I think that's why legislation is going to be needed. We do want to see companies like Royal Caribbean make public commitments, but there's only so much we can do with that. Without adequate laws and regulations, the public still won't have the level of confidence that they're going to want."

For environmentalists, a 2002 incident involving one of Crystal Cruises' ships serves as an example of the pitfalls of non-enforceable, voluntary agreements. Crystal Cruises had signed an agreement, along with the other major cruise lines, to not discharge any wastewater in the marine sanctuary outside of Monterey, the coastal California town famed for its aquarium and marine research. Crystal Cruises admitted, five months after the fact, to having discharged 36,000 gallons of graywater and treated sewage in the sanctuary, explaining that the company hadn't reported the discharge promptly because it wasn't illegal -- it only represented that they hadn't kept their promise.

Dubose now hopes the ocean-going public will voice its concerns to the cruise lines. Oceana is asking people to take a pledge not to take a Royal Caribbean cruise until the company commits to meeting a better standard for its wastewater and agrees to independent, third-party monitoring. She says the group has collected 30,000 signatures, including people petitioned outside of cruise terminals as they were disembarking from Royal Caribbean ships.

Dubose says Oceana plans to reach out to New Orleans community leaders, and hopes that local environmental groups will begin to research the problem of cruise ship waste. Still, Louisiana environmental groups have yet to discover the issue. "I do not know of anyone working on cruise ship discharges," said Mary Lee Orr, director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Dubose thinks that once the public becomes aware of the issue, they'll want the industry to take more responsibility. "[The cruise ships] are profiting from the oceans, they're actually traveling to pristine locations, and therefore they have a higher obligation to protect those areas."

The Alaska precedent is a good model to follow, says Michele Brown, who worked on that state's legislation. But ultimately, she stresses, it's a local decision. "I'd say study the issue so that you really know what you're dealing with. Establish a standard that your community finds acceptable, and then enforce it."

click to enlarge Oceana's Dana Dubose believes that the industry - should take more responsibility for its waste - products. "[The cruise ships] are profiting from the - oceans and therefore they have a higher obligation - to protect those areas," she says. - OCEANA
  • Oceana
  • Oceana's Dana Dubose believes that the industry should take more responsibility for its waste products. "[The cruise ships] are profiting from the oceans and therefore they have a higher obligation to protect those areas," she says.
click to enlarge Three cruise lines now operate out of New Orleans: - Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. Each - emphasizes that its corporate policies exceed the - national and international standards for - wastewater. - ELIZA STRICKLAND
  • Eliza Strickland
  • Three cruise lines now operate out of New Orleans: Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. Each emphasizes that its corporate policies exceed the national and international standards for wastewater.
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