Going Overboard: Q&A with ship pollution activist Gershon Cohen

Earthjustice successfully defended an Alaskan ballot initiative which called for cruise ships to stop discharging waste into Alaska's pristine waters.

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Recently, Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch spoke with Gershon Cohen, project director of the Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters. In June, Earthjustice successfully defended an Alaskan ballot initiative that Cohen co-authored, which called for cruise ships to stop discharging waste into Alaska’s pristine waters.

JK: How did you first learn about cruise ship pollution? 

GC: Back in 1999, I read about how Royal Caribbean had just been convicted for dumping waste into the water. One of the places they dumped it was right near my home in Alaska. I immediately called the Environmental Protection Agency to find out if I could get a copy of their permits to see what they were supposed to be able to discharge. A few hours later, I got a call back from a very sheepish EPA person who said “Gee. They don’t have permits.” I said, “What do you mean they don’t have permits? How could you be discharging millions of gallons of wastewater and not have a permit?” He said, “Well, it looks like they’re exempt. I was like, “No kidding. I wonder how they worked that?” That’s where it all started for me. 

JK: How much waste do these ships generate?
GC: A typical ship of a couple of thousand passengers will generate about thirty to forty thousand gallons of sewage per day. They advertise these cruises as being a nonstop buffet, right? Well, guess what happens to all that food? At some point, the ship’s got to get rid of it after it’s passed through the people on the boat. They generate tremendous amounts of sewage and urine from all of the feeding that goes on at the trough.
They also generate several hundred thousand gallons a day of graywater, which is the water from showers, sinks and laundry facilities, as well as waste from medical facilities, spas and pools contaminated with various chemicals. When Royal Caribbean’s conviction came down, we found out that they were discharging silver nitrate overboard, which is very toxic to fish. They were also dumping perchloroethylene, a carcinogenic dry cleaning fluid.
JK: So they dump this untreated waste into the water?
GC: At that time, sewage discharges were being treated with a marine sanitation device. But it turns out that these devices had actually never been checked out by the Coast Guard to see if they worked. Not only were these devices not treating the waste, they were actually functioning as incubators for bacteria. The samples of the waste were so hot with bacteria that they were pegging the test at the maximum reading.
The other problem was that there was no one watching what these ships were doing. When ships would leave the port, if they didn’t think the Coast Guard would be around, they would get out to sea and install what they called “magic pipes” on the ship that would allow them to just bypass all of the pollution control equipment. The more we looked into it, we found that this was a fleet-wide practice to not treat waste on the vessels. So it was a real problem. We’re talking huge quantities of waste going into some of the most pristine habitats in the world.  
JK: In 2006, Alaskans passed a ballot initiative that you co-authored, which called for stricter regulations for cruise ships in Alaska. How did you get this bill to pass?
GC: Alaska has a rap of being very pro-industry and not being green. And it’s true to a great degree. However, Alaska also really prides itself on its independence and on a sense of fair play. So one of the things we did in the campaign was to make it clear to people that everyone else in the extraction or natural resource industry had to play by the rules, everyone except the cruise industry. That really resonated with people that this wasn’t fair, and I think that that was a large reason that we won the election. And now, Alaska has the strictest cruise ship rules in the world.
EJ: What happened after the ballot passed?
GC: In 2009, the Alaskan legislature extended the time period that the cruise industry would have to meet the pollution standards until January 1, 2016. It’s amazing. They gave them nine years.  However, we managed to get the legislature to include the idea that ships would have to meet the best available technology that was out there during the interim. In other words, if there was a ship out there doing a better job than another ship, the inferior ship didn’t have to necessarily use the same waste treatment system, but they had to meet the same level of performance.
Unfortunately, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decided to define “best available technology” as the best system that any ship had on it at that time. So whatever you were doing, that would be your best available technology. And of course that’s ludicrous. It makes a mockery out of the whole concept. So we decided to sue and Earthjustice took on our case. We filed our briefs last January and were victorious in the case about a week and a half ago.
EJ: The case was argued in Alaska Superior Court. What was the judge’s ruling?
GC: He told the DEC that they needed to prove to the public that what they’re considering to be the best available technology for these ships is in fact the best available technology. So now the DEC has to go back and justify the permit limits that they set. Frankly, I don’t think they can do it. We used the DEC’s own data to demonstrate that these better systems exist. So, their whole argument has no legs.
EJ: Now that the law has passed, what kind of impact will this law have on ships outside of Alaska?  
GC: Well, we were hoping that other states would jump on board. Unfortunately, lobbyists are so powerful in other states that it hasn’t happened yet. Some states like Maine and Hawaii have weaker laws, but in those places the ships self-monitor. I mean, here are these convicted felons self-monitoring their discharges. Can you imagine if you were a bank robber and you went to the local Wells Fargo branch and said, “Hi, I’d like to apply for a job as a teller?” That’s essentially what’s going on here.
EJ: Could you tell us which companies are responsibly disposing their waste so that people can support those ships?
GC: No. And the reason is because it’s not consistent for any particular line. Some of the ships from some of the lines are better than others. The only reason they’re doing it in Alaska is because they have to do it in Alaska. And the ships that aren’t coming to Alaska, right down the line they have inferior systems.

Listen to Cohen’s entire interview.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.