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Cruise lines Under Fire For Pollution As They Make Sewage Cleaner

Apr 13, 2005 | AP

The cruise industry has gotten so big that all its ships together could hold every one of this city's 360,000 residents with room to spare. And just like cities, cruise lines have to deal with a nasty problem: the millions of gallons of sewage those people produce.

While the industry is installing equipment that one executive says makes sewage and other wastewater almost as "clean as Perrier," environmentalists, states and some members of Congress are pushing to toughen what they call outdated marine pollution standards.

"This is really the smart thing to do. Essentially, the cruise ships sell the marine environment and the healthier the marine environment is that will increase cruise sales," said U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. He has worked on the Clean Cruise Ship Act with two environmental groups, the Bluewater Network and Oceana. Alaska, California and Maine have already passed similar laws.

But the cruise industry argues the new standards aren't based on science and that most water pollution comes from sources on land. The lines are waiting for federal Environmental Protection Agency data due in a few months that will show how well the new treatment systems worked on wastewater dumped in Alaska.

"Public policy dictates that we make good informed decisions based on science and not based on two polarized groups," said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry group that represents companies like Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. He said complying with the bill would cost billions of dollars.

Currently, the federal Clean Water Act from the 1970s lets cruise ships dump raw sewage anywhere outside of a 3-nautical mile limit from U.S. shores. Inside that territorial water boundary, cruise ships can release sewage only after reducing its content of fecal coliform, a harmful bacteria found in human feces.

The industry group has voluntarily agreed to exceed those rules. It says member lines treat all sewage and discharge it only when ships are at least 4 nautical miles from shore (12 miles for Royal Caribbean) and moving at least 6 knots to better disperse it. The same distances are used for the "gray water" drained from showers, sinks and washing machines. Each ship generates up to 1 million gallons of waste water per week.

Environmentalists argue that self-imposed rules aren't enough. They note that companies can't be prosecuted if they violate the rules, and say that monitoring for compliance is spotty, at best.

Farr and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., plan to reintroduce their bill Thursday in Congress, where it died last year after receiving little support. It would apply to cruise ships able to carry at least 250 passengers.

Under the act, cruise ships from 12 to 200 nautical miles from U.S. coasts could discharge sewage, bilge water or other wastewater only if they are treated to reduce levels of fecal coliform and other pollutants to meet standards much stricter than current law.

Ships within 12 nautical miles of U.S. shores couldn't release any treated or untreated wastewater. Cruise companies would have three years to meet the standards. By 2015, all pollutants would have to be eliminated from wastewater before dumping. The Coast Guard would test wastewater samples for compliance.

The cruise industry isn't alone in its opposition to the bill. While the EPA appreciates the attention it brings to water quality, it's premature to establish new national standards without the Alaska data, said Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Water.

The industry also argues it doesn't get credit from its detractors for installing the $2 million wastewater cleaning devices without any law requiring it. Thirty percent of the roughly 120 council member ships have the systems, Crye said. They separate clean water from sludge, which is disposed of on land.

The water produced is "completely without color, without odor. Some executives in the cruise line industry have drank it publicly," said Rich Pruitt, director of environmental programs for Royal Caribbean, which has pledged to install the systems on all of its 29 ships by 2008.

Grumbles said that although the water quality is better, "I would not say it's safe enough to drink."

Teri Shore of the Bluewater Network acknowledges that the advanced treatment systems on many cruise ships "are a huge improvement over the conventional ones."

But "these systems don't remove everything. They remove the very basic contaminants found in sewage, but it doesn't remove nitrogen, metals or any other pollutants that might get into that system," she said.

Crye said he doesn't believe that is true, but "until we see the EPA data, we don't really know how effective these systems are at removing some of those things."

He also pointed to a study by the Pew Oceans Commission that said 80 percent of ocean pollution came from land-based sources, and cruise ships were responsible for less than 1 percent.

"Frankly, we're meeting standards in Alaska that exceed in all cases their municipal wastewater treatment systems," he said.

But sewage treatment plants nationwide often have to meet more requirements than cruise ships, Grumbles said.

The proposed act wouldn't change federal law on garbage dumping or air pollution. Paper and food waste has to be ground down and dumped at least 3 nautical miles from land. Metal and glass has to be shredded, bagged and discharged at least 12 nautical miles from land. Cruise lines have also agreed to try to do better than those rules and minimize dumping.

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