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Going Overboard

Every year, about one million vacation-goers hop on Alaskan cruise ships to experience the unspoiled beauty of the Last Frontier. Unfortunately, these floating cities carry far more baggage with them than just a one-night stand with an exotic stranger.

As they travel across the high seas, cruise ships dump nearly 148 million gallons of wastewater—about 224 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth—laced with partially treated sewage, heavy metals and toxic chemicals like fire retardants into Alaska’s pristine waters each year.

In June 2011, Earthjustice successfully defended Alaskans’ right to rein in wastewater dumping on behalf of the Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters (CSAW) and Friends of the Earth.

“They advertise these cruises as being a nonstop buffet, right? Well, guess what happens to all that food?” says Gershon Cohen, Project Director of the CSAW, an organization concerned with ship pollution. “They generate tremendous amounts of sewage and urine from all of the feeding that goes on at the trough.” (Listen to an interview with Cohen.)

In addition to water pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a typical cruise ship generates one ton of garbage each day, much of which is then incinerated and then dumped into the ocean, further fouling the air and water. This industry-wide practice can harm the very attractions that draw visitors to Alaska, such as iconic wildlife like whales and porpoises. It also negatively impacts two of the state’s main revenue streams, tourism and fishing.

“We’re talking huge quantities of waste going into, in many cases, some of the most pristine habitat in the world,” says Cohen. “We’re not talking about Boston Harbor or the Port of Long Beach. A lot of these ships are going into really critical habitat for marine life.”

Allowing the cruise ship industry to pollute the state’s unspoiled waterways when everyone else had to play by the rules and register for discharge permits didn’t sit well with most Alaskans, so in 2006 Alaskan voters passed a landmark initiative co-drafted by Cohen that limited harmful wastewater discharges from cruise ships.

“The idea is that a cruise ship is like a big floating city. And just like we all expect a city to treat its waste before it pumps it into the waterways, the cruise ships should have to do that too,” says Shawn Eisele, an Earthjustice attorney involved with the case.

Despite the law’s popularity, two years of industry-applied pressure eventually convinced Alaska’s legislators to water down the new requirements and delay the discharge rules until 2016. But in the meantime, cruise ship operators would be required to use the “best available technology” to treat their sewage. In other words, if one ship was doing a better job at wastewater treatment than another ship, the inferior ship would be required to meet the superior system’s level of performance.

That last part flies in the face of the maritime industry, which has a long history of dumping its waste on the high seas, both legally and illegally. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office—the investigative arm of Congress—from 1993 through 1998, cargo ships, tankers, cruise ships and other commercial vessels were involved in almost 2,400 confirmed cases of illegally dumping oil, garbage and other harmful substances in U.S. coastal waters. Over the years, a handful of laws have been passed to try to tame the watery Wild West, but the industry-wide dictum that “dilution is the solution to pollution” largely remains afloat.

The new wastewater regulations were expected to make an iceberg-sized dent in cleaning up the industry, especially since Alaskan cruises account for eight percent of global cruises. Unfortunately, Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation decided to steer the regulations the other way by issuing permits that claimed, in short, that whatever pollution control technology a cruise ship was using was the best available technology, no questions asked.

“The DEC’s decision is akin to walking into a car dealer and telling them that you want the most fuel efficient car they had, and they tell you that every car they have is the most fuel efficient that it could possibly be,” says Eisele. “That doesn’t help you find what you’re looking for, and I don’t think that kind of answer is giving the people of Alaska what they were looking for either.”

Recently, the Alaska Superior Court agreed with Earthjustice and its clients and ordered the DEC to justify its permits by proving that what it considers to be the best available waste treatment technology for these ships is in fact the best technology.

“Frankly, I think it’s going to be difficult for the agency to justify those permits,” Eisele said. “It basically puts the weight back on the shoulders of DEC to do their job to ensure clean water for Alaska.”

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