Are Cruises Ruining the World?

Port of Charleston

Much has been said about the awe-inspiring Oasis of the Seas: it's the largest cruise ship ever at 225,282 gross tons and can carry 8,600 people including passengers and crew. To put that into perspective, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a weeklong sailing requires 700 tons of supplies (including a whopping 20 tons of maraschino cherries) and 20,000 pieces of linens need to be washed every day to outfit the cabins and dining rooms. Which begs the question: With cruise ships getting bigger and bigger, what kind of impact are they having on the environment?

An investigation by the environmental group Friends of the Earth that appeared in The New York Times found that a one-week voyage on a large ship produces an estimated 210,000 gallons of sewage, a million gallons of graywater (runoff from sinks, baths, showers, laundry and galleys), 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water, 11,550 gallons of sewage sludge and more than 130 gallons of hazardous wastes. Watchdog organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund catalog the industry's slick trail of spills and discharge violations from the Antarctic to Aegean Seas. The current state and federal laws permit cruise ships to dump untreated sewage (that environmental advocates claim may affect both human and marine life) once a ship is just three nautical miles from shore.

Terminal Velocity

Rejuvenating decrepit, even dangerous harbor-fronts is nothing new. Monterey's Cannery Row, Tampa's Channelside, and Manhattan's Battery Park City remain shining examples of urban renewal, luring locals back to formerly derelict areas with shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.

Charleston's ambitious Union Pier Plan will redevelop 63 acres of waterfront in the middle of downtown with a new cruise terminal that reflects the character of historic Charleston while mitigating existing traffic. The project also calls for removing 600,000 square feet of industrial warehouse space, demolishing the current cargo and cruise terminal, and restoring more than a half mile of natural shoreline. The crumbling 19th-century Bennett Rice Mill facade will also be renovated as a backdrop for an amphitheater incorporated into a public park. Also on the wish list is rethinking the currently tourist-oriented market, dead on non-cruise days, into one more appealing to locals (think Seattle's Pike Place).

The plan will take years to complete, of course, and work on the new terminal is scheduled to being in early 2011.
Environmentalists worry that U.S. regulations provide loopholes through which waste can ooze. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) concedes that past violations served as an important wake-up call, focusing industry efforts on improving environmental procedures and closely monitoring onboard activities to ensure compliance. Cruise lines operate within a stringent, comprehensive scheme of environmental standards set by the U.N.'s International Maritime Organization. MARPOL (short for marine pollution) was ratified by some 90 nations including the U.S. and sets strict standards for all commercial vessels to prevent ship-generated pollution from oil, garbage, and waste. There is also an "Emission Control Area" within 230 miles of the North American coast, requiring ships to use cleaner fuels while transiting and docked. The new restrictions will cut fuel sulfur levels by 98 percent, fine particulate matter emissions by 85 percent, and smog-forming nitrogen oxide pollution by 80 percent.

Many federal agencies are also tasked with oversight, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the CDC, as well as independent entities such as the EPA, not to mention state, municipal, and port authorities. Enforcement mechanisms of federal and international pollution laws include routine random Coast Guard boarding inspections to ensure compliance. Satellite surveillance, vessel tracking, and aerial reconnaissance augment these measures. Coastal states such as Alaska, California, and Florida supplement federal legislation with their own regulatory enforcement. In addition each ship files an internationally mandated Safety Management System that is auditable, inspectable, and enforceable by classification societies.

The biggest concerns come from the areas around the ports where these cruise ships dock. "Most cities want the business but residents worry about hot-button environmental implications, which should be a concern but not a hysterical concern," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of "I'm not an apologist but the changes made in stewardship have been astonishing." reported that in the past decade alone, cruise ships have cut waste and garbage almost in half, while recycling more than many communities, despite cruise capacity averaging 7.6% annual growth. Since 2005, cruise lines have spent an average of $2 million per ship on new environmental technologies and retrofits. According to CLIA, those improvements include everything from hulls designed to reduce drag to window tinting to lessen the need for air conditioning to water-saving low-flow toilets.

This fight between environmental advocates and the cruise industry is coming to a head in Charleston, South Carolina. For the genteel southern city, the double-barreled 2010 assault of Celebrity Cruises' re-entrance and Carnival's decision to base the 2,056-passenger Fantasy in the port year-round triggered broadsides from the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League (SCCCL), who are worried about the impact on the local environment as well as aesthetics. The SCCCL decries the cruise industry's poor history of environmental compliance, noting that Carnival and Celebrity rank among the worst offenders. In 2009, 39 Celebrity and Carnival ships were cited for environmental violations around the country; over the past decade both companies incurred heavy fines for dumping untreated waste and other pollutants. More violations, according to, include deliberate falsification of discharge records and installation of equipment to bypass pollution controls.

On the other side of the debate is the South Carolina State Ports Authority. The SCSPA says they are responding to calls from local activists. They aim to decrease port-related emissions through partnerships with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, as well as 23 private companies and associations. The group initiated a voluntary anti-idling campaign to reduce vehicle emissions, agreed to evaluate the use of cleaner fuels, switched to ultra-low sulfur diesel three years ahead of federal mandate, and lobbied tenants and on-site partners to switch as well.

But what about other quality of life concerns, like preserving Charleston's intimate historic ambience and neighborhood integrity? "Each enormous cruise ship is like a wall looming against the skyline; you can see it from everywhere," says SCCCL Project Manager Katie Zimmerman. The SCCCL and Historic Charleston Foundation call for regulations to alleviate increased vehicular and pedestrian traffic and congestion, and to cap the size, height, and passenger capacity of ships. SCSPA spokesperson Byron Miller responds that a plan for a new terminal is in place (see sidebar) that will be modern but also reflect Charleston's distinctive characteristics. The terminal will be purposefully too small to accommodate mega ships and their many passengers. "It is being designed around a certain vessel class, with one berth, and a certain amount of support space and parking," says Miller. The port contracted for 67 cruises in 2010 (only 10 more than in 2005). Miller also cites statistics that cruise passengers and traffic will remain low. They expect 110,000 passengers to pass through, which is about three percent of Charleston's 4.1 million annual visitors. He adds that the market couldn't support larger ships with any regularity and most ships carry between 1,800 and 2,000 passengers.

Some would also argue that the ships would be a boon for the local economy, with a thousand or so passengers wandering around Charleston to shop for souvenirs and have lunch. In fact, an SCSPA-commissioned study estimates the total cruise-related economic output at more than $37 million for the Tri-County area, including jobs, taxes, and passenger business. But there's always a flipside. Zimmerman retorts that several economists and statisticians deem the study unspecific (and potentially misleading). She claims the SCSPA takes about one-third of that potential revenue and didn't quantify the costs of hosting cruise ships. "The problem with the rationale that cruise passengers comprise a low percentage of total visitors is that the Carnival and Celebrity ships are increasing crowds and pedestrian traffic without necessarily increasing the local revenue collected." Zimmerman says. She notes that cruises will charge passengers $50 for a typical $25 carriage tour, after negotiating with that company for an even lower rate in return for guaranteed business. "Will 'hit-and-run' cruise tourism displace our traditional tourism, causing typical visitors who definitely spend money in local hotels and restaurants to avoid the area while a cruise ship is in town?" she worries.

Another group that is keeping a close eye on the ships and their waste is the local seafood industry. Many of the city's top restaurants are focusing on local, sustainable seafood for their kitchens and no one wants to serve (or eat) contaminated products. When asked about this, Miller quotes a recent Charleston Post and Courier article in which Mel Bell, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources director of fisheries management, states that wastewater poses no risk to fish or people who eat local seafood, while human pathogens (like Norovirus) wouldn't affect marine life, which is also protected by seawater's sterilizing properties.

So where does that leave us? Cruise lines have arguably done more than any other industry to implement eco-friendly standards. And what does it matter if these admirable initiatives are accomplished for the wrong reasons (compelled by ever-stricter laws, economic feasibility, or countering bad publicity) as long as they produce the right results? As SCSPA's Miller says, "When hotels ask if you'll preserve the environment by reusing towels and sheets, do they really care or is it just sound fiscal practice to reduce laundry costs?" So no, the cruise lines aren't ruining the world. But that doesn't mean that tighter restrictions don't need to be enacted. It's a situation that needs to be kept under the microscope.
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