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Cruise Line Pollution Prompts Legislation

Three bills would crack down on ships' discharges within three miles of the coastline.

August 18, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

MONTEREY, Calif. — A luxury cruise liner, the Crystal Harmony, has been banished forever from this seaside town by city leaders who were outraged that the ship disgorged 36,400 gallons of wastewater several miles offshore and then waited five months to report the incident.

The ship dumped the waste, which included sewage and bilge water, into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, renowned as a refuge for dolphins, whales and other marine life.

"They tried to hide it," said Carl E. Anderson, Monterey's director of public facilities. "Months and months later, we learned about it, after pressing them for their records. We don't think that is a good way to do business."

The ship's owner, Crystal Cruises, has apologized for violating a written promise to the city and fired one officer and disciplined two others for violating company policy prohibiting such discharges. But it pointed out that the discharge, which occurred 14 miles offshore, was legal and not subject to disclosure requirements.

"We didn't violate any rules, regulators or laws," said company Vice President Joseph L. Valenti. "It was all legal."

Nonetheless, the Monterey City Council voted unanimously to permanently bar the Crystal Harmony from its harbor, and to ban other ships in the Crystal Cruises fleet for 15 years.

The incident also has propelled California lawmakers to promote legislation to protect waters from cruise ship pollution. If adopted, the legislation would be the toughest law of its kind in the nation. A trio of bills, nearing final passage, would ban all cruise ship discharges within three miles of the state's coastline.

The legislation also would seek federal permission to forbid sewage, oily bilge water and other polluted waste from being released in national marine sanctuaries, which cover large expanses of ocean around the Channel Islands, the Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Banks and a stretch of Central California coastline from Cambria to Marin County.

Gov. Gray Davis, who received $10,000 in contributions from the Cruise Industry Community Fund last year, has not said whether he intends to approve the legislation, which is opposed by the cruise ship industry.

The industry says protective measures should be left to informal no-discharge agreements between cruise lines and local authorities -- a position that has been undercut by the events that unfolded earlier this year in Monterey.

Ross Klein, a professor at Canada's Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of "Cruise Ship Blues," believes that the "betrayal" felt by authorities in Monterey by Crystal Cruises was stronger than the reaction to the actual spill.

"The industry keeps saying 'Trust us,' " Klein said. "Most politicians and reasonable people take them at their word. But when something like this happens, it makes it an empty sort of statement" and suspicion is spreading with each discharge.

Federal officials have prosecuted cruise lines for dozens of discharges off the coasts of California, Alaska and Florida, resulting in the payment of about $100 million in fines in the last decade. A significant number of the fines were levied for falsifying records or lying to the Coast Guard about ocean dumping that sometimes was legal, but embarrassing for image-conscious cruise lines.

"We need to establish as a matter of law that this behavior will not be tolerated," said Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), the author of two of the three bills moving through the Legislature. "Regrettably, cruise lines have a history of violating their agreements and gaming the system. 'Trust us' is no longer an effective environmental policy."

Cruise ships often carry as many as 5,000 passengers and crew members. In one week, a ship can generate 210,000 gallons of sewage, 1 million gallons of "gray water" from sinks, showers and dishwashers, 37,000 gallons of oil bilge water run through engines and 8 tons of solid waste.

But unlike cities on land, cruise ships are exempt from many provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. Gray water and treated sewage can be discharged in all but a few places set off-limits, such as the Florida Keys. Raw sewage can be dumped anywhere, as long as it is three miles from shore.

Alaska recently adopted laws to require cruise ships to upgrade their wastewater treatment systems so they meet federal effluent standards, and to report such discharges to state and federal authorities.

The California legislation takes a simpler approach: It would ban virtually all wastewater, including treated sewage and gray water, from the ocean within the state's jurisdiction, which stretches from land to three miles out to sea. It also would seek permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to extend the ban into four national marine sanctuaries, which cover thousands of square miles of ocean off the coast.

Other states have received EPA permission to establish no-discharge zones, albeit much smaller than those California is considering.

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