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Crystal Cruises gets in hot water

Ship releases treated wastewater into Monterey sanctuary, violating policy.

March 16, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

A luxury cruise line acknowledged that its ship released treated wastewater into Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary off the Central California coast, violating its own environmental policies and a promise to the city of Monterey.

In response, the city earlier this month said it would refuse to provide services, such as use of its pier to unload tenders, to the ship involved, Crystal Harmony. On Tuesday, Carl Anderson, Monterey's director of public facilities, plans to recommend that the City Council declare the ship's operator, Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises, "no longer welcome in Monterey Bay."

In a March 6 letter to the council, seven environmental groups urged the city to go further and ban all cruise ship visits until "it is clear ... that there is an effective system in place to protect [the sanctuary] from cruise ship pollution."

Monterey says Crystal violated an agreement with the city that bans wastewater discharges into the sanctuary, which stretches along nearly 300 miles of coastline from Marin County to San Luis Obispo County. The sanctuary contains the nation's largest kelp forest and more than 30 species of marine animals, including otters and sea lions, plus hundreds of seabird and fish species, officials said.

The cruise line acknowledges that the 940-passenger Crystal Harmony released about 130 cubic meters of what it calls "appropriately treated wastewater" into the sanctuary in October during its maiden visit to Monterey. The company has apologized and said it fired the ship's chief officer and censured other officers in October after learning of the discharge.

But the company said it didn't have to report the incident to authorities because it broke no laws. It is "perfectly legal" under maritime laws to discharge even untreated wastewater more than 12 miles offshore, and the ship was 14 miles offshore at the time, said Crystal spokeswoman Mimi Weisband.

Authorities learned of the incident in late February after the California State Water Resources Control Board, following up on a request from its Central Coast regional board, asked Crystal whether it had discharged into the sanctuary.

"We didn't break any law," Weisband said. "We did break a promise. And we did violate our corporate standard." She said the company was "disappointed" in Monterey's response.

Anderson objected to the line's failure to report the incident when it happened and said he was further angered by the line's insistence that it did not have to do so.

Any "ban" on the cruise line could be largely symbolic. The Crystal Harmony was on a repositioning cruise between Alaska and Mexico at the time and does not have any other visits scheduled to Monterey Bay, Weisband said. The line operates one other ship and plans to launch a third this summer.

But the dispute could hamper the budding cruise business in Monterey, which had invited three ships to call last year, despite misgivings of environmental activists, and the city has more visits scheduled this year. In the last several years, cruise lines have paid millions of dollars in fines for water and air pollution in various ports.

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