Before the end of the month, a 780-foot visitor will arrive at Pier 66. And Holland America’s ms Amsterdam is just the first of many—more than 200 other cruise vessels will dock in Seattle this spring and summer.
Cruise ship season — which brings a sharply growing number of giant vessels like the ms Amsterdam to Puget Sound each year — is just around the corner.
“We’ve been talking about cruise ships for the past 10 years, really because of the significant expansion in our waters” said Marcie Keever, a representative from national environmental organization Friends of the Earth (FOE). “We have seen an explosion of cruise ships. They really are small cities.”
The number of cruise ships docking in Seattle each year has increased from 6 vessels carrying 6,615 passengers in 1999 to 218 vessels with 875,433 passengers in 2009. The Port of Seattle estimates the city will see five more ships this year, carrying a total of 858,00 passengers. The ships will dock at either Pier 66 or Pier 91, which opened to cruise ships last year.
And as the number of vacationers relaxing on cruise ships climbs each year, so does the volume of air and water pollution that cruise lines produce, Keever said.
Federal law prohibits cruise ships from dumping untreated sewage within three miles from shore. International law mandates cruise ships wait until they’re 12 miles out to discharge waste. One a vessel passes sails past the marker, however, no laws prevent them from dumping.
“It’s one of the least regulated industries in the world,” Keever said, noting that while FOE has seen the cruise ship industry take some steps towards cleaning up their act over the past five years, few federal or international standards hold the industry accountable.
One problem, Keever said, is cruise lines using out-dated Sewage Treatment Devices. About half of cruise ships in the country use devices that are 30 years old, she said, which may explain why “they just don’t do enough to clean sewage.”
And barely-treated sewage can pose serious environmental hazards and human health risks.
“You end up with sewage pathogens in the water,” Keever said. “Amonia and nitrogen from urine can change the water pH and even create a dead zone. It toxifies the water for fish.”
Toxins can also enter shellfish and other seafoods humans consume, Keever said.
A second problem arises from the oily bilge water and hazardous waste cruise ships emit into the ocean. Friends of the Earth estimates that in one week, a large cruise ship can release up to 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water.
Some cruise lines, however, have taken steps to make their vessels friendlier to the earth.
Celebrity Cruises' ships only release substances into the ocean that are less than 5 parts per million (ppm) oil, said Rich Pruitt, Celebrity Cruises’ Director of Environmental Programs. Federal law puts the limit of oil concentration a cruise ship can dump at 15 ppm.
“We’re way above federal standards,” he said. “As far as environmental communities go, we fare well.”
Celebrity vessels are equipped with “cutting edge” wastewater purification systems with filtering membranes to separate out solids and pollutants, Pruitt said.
It’s also against Celebrity’s policy to dump waste at sea. “We take recycle it, or take it to land for proper disposal,” Pruitt said.
Aboard every Celebrity cruise are environmental officers who ensure the crew is following environmental protocols and educate passengers on ways they can help the vessel conserve energy, he added. The officers report to the captain and to the company’s corporate office in Miami.
This year, the Port of Seattle will help mitigate the environmental impact cruise ships entering Puget Sound in two ways. First, they’ll offer shore power at Pier 91 so ships can turn off their engines and plug into electrical grids while they're docked.
The two shore power sites, both located at Pier 91’s Smith Cove Cruise Terminal, allow ships to turn off their fuel-burning engines while docked, reducing the air pollution they release.
“It’s really a great benefit to the air quality of the region,” said Charla Skaggs, Port of Seattle Corporate Media Officer. “It’s pretty remarkable. They don’t have to be running their engines.”
Second, the Port will continue the ABC Fuels program, which offers cruises stopping at Pier 66 $2,250 incentive for burning low-sulfur, cleaner, fuel.
Port representatives confirmed that all of the vessels docking at Pier 66’s Bell Street Terminal, including the Celebrity and Norwegian cruise lines, will burn low-sulfur fuel.
The Celebrity Infinity burns marine diesel, which is lower than most fuels in its sulfur content, Pruitt said.
All cruise ships sailing in the Pacific Northwest must also abide by a 2004 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), an agreement between the Department of Ecology, The Port and the cruise lines. The MOU, which the Northwest Cruise Ship Association signed on behalf of the industry, outlines protocol for wastewater treatment and discharge in Washington waters. The agreement also prohibits dumping in Puget Sound and parts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This year Friends of the Earth has proposed an amendment to the standing MOU which would prohibit cruise ships from dumping any treated wastewater while they’re docked at Seattle piers. According to Fred Felleman, Friends of the Earth’s Northwest consultant, of the seven cruise lines calling at the Port this year, only Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) still discharges at the dock. Ships managed by other lines already refrain from dumping until outside MOU waters, Felleman said. “Why would Norwegian want to be the only cruise ship line with vessels dumping at the dock?” he asked. “We’re asking for so little here.” Friends of the Earth is currently gathering signatures for Amendment 2—which is backed by the Department of Ecology and other environmental organizations–before submitting it to the Port of Seattle Commission. They hope to have the measure in place before cruise ship season begins.
Keever said that while not all cruise companies act in environmentally negligent ways, high ship traffic from multiple lines makes it difficult to distinguish which cruise lines are following the rules from those who disregarding them.
Once they’ve past twelve miles from shore “it’s hard to tell who’s doing what,” she said.
FOE issued a report card last year rating different cruise lines in three categories of environmental impact: Sewage Treatment, Air Pollution Reduction, and Water Quality Compliance. They also graded each company’s accessibility of environmental information. FOE plans to publish the report card annually, Keever said.
To regulate the cruise ship industry also means getting congress involved, she said.
“We’re going to keep pushing legislation federally to protect our waters.”