Illegal Dumping Steers Ships into Legal Trouble

Cruise ships were involved in 87 confirmed cases of illegal discharges of oil, chemicals, and garbage or plastic in U.S. waters from 1993 to 1998, according to a Washington, D.C.-based General Accounting Office (GAO) report to Congress earlier this year.

The GAO study, undertaken at congressional request, provided information on the actions being taken by federal regulators and the cruise ship industry to prevent future illegal dumping.

The report focused on: the nature and extent of reported unlawful discharges by foreign-flagged cruise ships; federal agency efforts to prevent, detect, investigate and prosecute illegal discharges from these ships; the actions taken by implicated cruise lines to prevent future illegal discharges; and views expressed by federal agencies and third-party interest groups regarding these actions and some unresolved issues.

For years, the industry has insisted that it has been doing its best to improve waste management and other environmental practices. Indeed, federal and state officials confirm that many ship owners have considerably improved their environmental compliance.

The GAO report noted, among other things, that the number of confirmed illegal discharge cases by cruise ships in U.S. waters generally declined during the five-year study and that approximately three-fourths of these cases were accidental. Significantly, 12 cruise ship companies involved in nonaccidental pollution cases have implemented new or updated environmental plans to enhance ship safety and prevent pollution, according to the report. These plans were prepared under new international standards or were mandated by federal district courts after the companies pled guilty to pollution charges.

Cruise ship companies are making progress toward changing a maritime culture that once permitted discharges of garbage and oil from ships, the report continued, citing remarks by officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Justice and the Center for Marine Conservation. However, these companies must demonstrate a sustained commitment to eliminate illegal discharges at sea, these officials added.

Some environmental groups did not seem persuaded by the report or by cruise industry assurances about compliance. The decline in violations, they said, may have more to do with the enforcement priorities of regulatory agencies.

"The cruise ship industry has to bring down violations to zero before anybody should give them credit," said Russell Long, executive director of the San Francisco-based Bluewater Network. "Otherwise, it's like a lawbreaker telling a judge that even though he's committed a lot of serious crimes, he deserves praise because he's working to do better."

On the other hand, at least one state environmental official was pleased with the industry's new attitude. "A lot has changed in the culture of the cruise lines," said Michael Conway of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. "They are working very hard to comply, and they've been very responsive."

In July, the U.S. Senate passed a bill with a rider sponsored by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, prohibiting the release of untreated sewage or hazardous materials throughout Alaska's spectacular and treasured Inside Passage. The bill, currently awaiting approval by the House, also upgraded the rules for treated substances.

Meantime, cruise lines have promised to stop discharging garbage, refuse and untreated sewage in the Inside Passage and to send samples of their overboard discharges to an independent laboratory for analysis before turning in the results to the Coast Guard.

Last March, the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association announced a memorandum of understanding with Florida environmental authorities, agreeing to new waste management procedures.

Among other measures that cruise lines are taking to make their operations environmentally friendly, passengers now see fewer, if any, plastic cups and one-use utensils. One company reportedly uses recycled paper for all on-board printed matter. Another claims that its reduced use of plastic has eliminated 7 million pieces of plastic waste per year.