Criminal Cruise Ships: Soiling the Seven Seas

By Schmidt, Kira | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Criminal Cruise Ships: Soiling the Seven Seas


Schmidt, Kira, Earth Island Journal


The cruise ship industry has been riding a tidal wave of prosperity in recent years, with more than $1.5 billion in profits and an explosive growth rate of eight percent per year. There is no sign this tide is ebbing: By the end of 2004, the cruise industry plans to introduce 47 new ships to the North American fleet, up from today's 144.

Although the industry's continued success ultimately depends on the beauty of the oceans, the armada of cruise ships now plying the planet's waters trails behind it a wake of pollution. Today's cruise ships, the largest of which can carry more than 5,000 passengers and crew, are floating cities that generate titanic volumes of waste. A typical cruise ship on a one-week voyage produces approximately eight tons of garbage, as well as one million gallons of "graywater" (wastewater from sinks, showers, galleys and laundry), 210,000 gallons of sewage, and 25,000 gallons of oil-contaminated water. In addition, untold amounts of hazardous waste are generated on board from onboard printing, photo processing and dry cleaning operations.

Unfortunately, the environmental laws and regulations designed to control pollution from these colossal ships have not kept pace with the industry's runaway growth. The Clean Water Act was formulated before the dawn of the mega-cruise ship, when waste from vessels was not perceived as a significant problem. As a result, the numerous loopholes and exemptions in current environmental regulations give the cruise industry a "license" to pollute.

For example, the Clean Water Act makes it unlawful to discharge pollutants from any "point source" into US waters without a permit. But discharges of sewage and graywater from vessels are exempt from this requirement. Graywater -- which, although not raw sewage ("blackwater"), often contains contaminants such as detergents, cleaners, oil, grease, metals and pesticides -- can legally be dumped anywhere, even though the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that graywater has the potential to cause adverse environmental effects.

The cruise industry has a history of illegally polluting the waters in which it sails. From 1993 to 1998, cruise ships were held responsible for 104 confirmed cases of illegal discharge of oil, garbage, and hazardous wastes, and required to pay more than $30 million in fines. This is just the tip of the trashberg. In reality, this number represents only a fraction of the industry's total illegal dumping. Several of these cases involved multiple incidents of illegal dumping that, according to the Department of Justice, numbered in the hundreds over the six-year period. Furthermore, this reflects only the quantity of detected cases; a recent report by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) reveals that the US Coast Guard's ability to detect and enforce marine pollution violations is hamstrung by numerous shortcomings.

In a particularly egregious case, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (RCC) admitted routinely dumping waste oil from its ships and deliberately dumping hazardous photo processing, dry cleaning and print shop chemicals into US harbors and off-coast areas over a period of several years. RCC ships were rigged with secret piping systems designed to bypass pollution treatment equipment. The company violations were characterized by investigators as so unscrupulous that they amounted to a "fleet-wide conspiracy [to] . …

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