Hey Mr. Green,
We've had friends cruise to Alaska and others who have traveled the Caribbean. I've got unconfirmed suspicions that these vessels are no more than floating garbage disposals and toilets. What are the practices and legal requirements of these cruise lines when it comes to disposing of onboard waste?
--Ron in Newport Beach, California
Cruise ships can indeed dump a lot of foul and dangerous stuff in our oceans. An imposing, mansion-esque boat packing 3,000 passengers can harbor a mess in its bowels reminiscent of that bubbling swamp in Dante’s Inferno. Essentially a floating town (it takes more than a village), a cruise ship can generate more than 200,000 gallons of human sewage and a million gallons of graywater per week, not to mention thousands of gallons of oily bilge water and other toxic materials. Going into specific rules and regulations would land us in an arcane discussion of allowable parts per milliliter of fecal coliform bacteria, the operation of Type II marine sanitation devices, and details as perplexing as the Big D’s theology itself (our medieval poet is making a comeback as a noted hip-hop moralist.)
So here’s the basic deal: cruise ships are allowed to dump raw sewage whenever they’re more than 3 nautical miles offshore. Within 3 miles, they can dump treated sewage, but how well-treated is a dirty little question, since in these dumpings, the EPA has found concentrations of coliform bacteria as much as 10,000 times higher than the allowable max for sewage. Cruise effluent can pollute beaches, harm marine animals, and even cause dead zones. When the ships get 25 miles out, they can simply dump or incinerate many types of garbage, and they can also dump the ash of the trash.
These are some of the reasons why Friends of the Earth filed a petition with the EPA to tighten up the 30-year-old regulations of the Clean Water Act, and is strongly backing the Clean Cruise Ship Act, soon to be introduced in the Senate by Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and in the House by Sam Farr (D-Calif.) To support this move to clean up shores and oceans, click here.
The proposal will seek a ban on sewage and oily bilge closer than 12 miles from shore, as well as strict treatment standards and stronger reporting requirements for wastewater treatment. Alaska’s rules are much stricter than the outdated federal requirements, so FOE envisions something resembling that state’s policy to become a national requirement for our coasts.
Despite the problems, you don’t need to avoid a cruise—if you can afford a cruise—because some lines are cleaning up their act, thanks to pressure from environmentalists. According a report card issued by Friends of the Earth, the cleanest cruise lines are Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Lines. Both bagged an “A” for their sewage-treatment practices and a “B” and “B-” overall respectively, whereas the worst were Royal Caribbean, which got a “D” on sewage and an “F” overall, and Disney Cruise Line, which flunked with an “F” on sewage and an “F” overall.For far more detailed information about this issue, and about other ocean-protection topics, you are invited to contact Friends of the Earth ocean defender Marcie Keever.