Left in Its Wake: The Cruise Industry Favours a Voluntary Approach to Environmental Responsibility, but Has Performed Badly Where Tough Regulatory Controls Are Not in Place

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* Middle of a transatlantic cruise aboard Seabourn Goddess I, October 2000: Passengers flock to watch and take pictures of a florescent green fluid coming from the back of the ship. The chief engineer tells passengers that it is a chemical used to clean the holding tanks and that it is legal to be released. A bridge officer tells me it is not permitted to dump the chemical. The ship's log records the release as food waste.

* A Royal Caribbean Mediterranean cruise, spring 1993: I watch seagulls follow the ship each evening as food waste is dumped overboard. A bar waiter insists I am mistaken--he says dumping food waste overboard is not permitted under the company's "Save the Waves" program.

* Between 1998 and 2000 in the United States: Royal Caribbean is levied three sets of fines totalling $52.7 million (1) for dumping oil and hazardous chemicals at sea between 1994 and 1998. US Attorney General Janet Reno says, "Royal Caribbean used our nation's waters as its dumping ground, even as it promoted itself as an environmentally 'green' company ... [and] to make matters worse, the company routinely falsified the ships' logs..." (2)

* April 2002, again in the US: Carnival Corporation pleads guilty to similar offences and agrees to pay $28.3 million in fines. It admits to dumping oily waste from five ships operated by Carnival Cruise Line and also admits that employees made false entries in record books from 1998 to 2001.

These incidents are not unique or unusual. Ac cording to the US Coast Guard, between 1993 and 1998, cruise ships were charged with 490 safety or environmental violations, and an additional 73 tickets were issued for oil spills of 378 litres or less. (3)

A different image is projected by the industry. Following Royal Caribbean's plea agreements in July 1999, the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL)--the cruise industry's Washington lobby organization-- actively assured the public about the industry's environmental practices. Several months later eyewitnesses accused Celebrity Cruises' Mercury of releasing perchlorethylene in San Francisco Bay. The company denied the allegation. The EPA undertook a criminal investigation after the Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group, initiated legal action. (4) The action is ongoing.

In June 2001, the ICCL issued "New Mandatory Environmental Standards for Cruise Ships." Touted as evidence of the industry's commitment to environmental protection, the standards were roughly equivalent to regulations already contained in the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). Though the "standards" are called "mandatory," the ICCL does no monitoring or certification, and applies no enforcement protocols.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the standards were announced while the Alaska State Senate was considering legislation that would authorize monitoring of cruise ship emissions and ensure enforcement of environmental standards. Rejecting the industry's advocacy of a voluntary approach, Alaska passed the legislation, thereby becoming the first US state to regulate water and air pollution from cruise ships.


Environmental practices of the cruise industry are heavily influenced by politics. For example, Holland America Line, which has the largest number of permits to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, has installed a system produced by Oakville, Ontario's Zenon Environmental Inc. that purifies wastewater to drinking water standards. Holland America is justifiably proud of the technology, but has installed the system only on ships that travel Alaska's Inside Passage. The Zenon system is reported to produce between 30 and 50 tonnes of sludge per week, which is discharged at sea just beyond the 20-km limit required by MARPOL.

The industry's environmental attitude is further reflected in its relationship with Caribbean ports. …