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Cruise ships dump a billion gallons of sewage in ocean

Cruise ships dumped more than a billion gallons of sewage in the ocean this year, much of it raw or poorly treated, according to federal data analyzed by Friends of the Earth. The activsit group, releasing its annual report card on cruise ships, called for stronger rules to protect oceans, coasts, sea life and people.

The report shows that some of the 16 cruise lines graded are slowly getting greener; but more than 40 percent of the 167 ships still rely on 35-year-old waste treatment technology. Such systems leave harmful levels of fecal matter, bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants in the water. By law, wastewater dumped within 3 nautical miles of shore must be treated, but beyond that ships are allowed to dump raw sewage directly into the ocean.

In a reversal from prior years of cooperation and transparency, all 16 major cruise lines refused — through their industry association, Cruise Lines International Association — to respond to Friends of the Earth’s requests for information on their pollution-reduction technologies. So the 2014 Cruise Ship Report card contains a new category — “Transparency,” in which every cruise line received an “F” grade.

“By working to stifle the Cruise Ship Report Card, the industry attempted to shield itself from continued scrutiny of its environmental practices, and obscure data from conscientious consumers who would make different choices based on how a cruise ship or line performs on the report card,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director for Friends of the Earth.

“It’s time for the cruise industry to stop trying to hide the dirty ships in its fleet,” said Keever.

Friends of the Earth’s report card grades cruise lines on four criteria: sewage treatment technology; whether ships can plug into shore-based power and if they use cleaner fuel than required by U.S. and international law; compliance with Alaska’s water quality regulations to protect the state’s coast; and transparency which is a new criteria this year.

Disney Cruise Line, based in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, was ranked as the most environmentally responsible line, earning an A for sewage treatment. Its overall grade would have remained an A if it would have responded to our requests for information but this year it received a C plus.

At the other end of the scale, Carnival Cruise Lines of Doral, Florida — which has the world’s largest fleet of 24 cruise ships but only two with advanced sewage treatment technology —- received an F for sewage treatment again this year. Carnival Lines’ parent company, Carnival Corp. & PLC of Miami and London, also operates six other lines graded by the report card and all seven lines were downgraded for refusal to respond to Friends of the Earth.

“As the industry leader, Carnival Corp. has to step up its environmental game throughout all of its different lines,” said Keever. “No wonder Carnival Corp. refuses to respond to Friends of the Earth or be completely honest with its customers when it continues to use outdated technology that pollutes our oceans and threatens our marine ecosystem health, sea life and all of us.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says an average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew produces about 21,000 gallons of sewage a day — enough to fill 10 backyard swimming pools in a week. That adds up to more than 1 billion gallons a year for the industry — a conservative estimate, since some new ships carry as many as 8,000 passengers and crew and the report card doesn’t include the entire worldwide fleet.

In addition, each ship generates and dumps about eight times that much “graywater” from sinks, showers and baths, which can contain many of the same pollutants as sewage and significantly affects water quality.

Cruise ships are also responsible for significant amounts of air pollution from the dirty fuel they burn. Even at the dock, cruise ships often run dirty diesel engines to provide electrical power to passengers and crew.

According to the EPA, each day an average cruise ship is at sea it emits more sulfur dioxide than 13 million cars and more soot than 1 million cars. Starting in 2015, cleaner fuel standards in the U.S. and Canada will reduce the amount of sulfur emitted by each ship about 97 percent and the amount of soot by 85 percent, in addition to the interim cleaner fuel standards already in place in North America.

“This is an industry worth billions of dollars that could install the most advanced sewage treatment and air pollution reduction technology available,” said Keever.

Environmental group sues over cruise ships’ sewage discharges

An environmental group is suing in federal court seeking better regulation of cruise ships and the sewage they dump into the ocean.

Friends of the Earth, represented by Earthjustice, want more effective regulation of the industry, said to dump more than a billion gallons of sewage — much of it poorly treated — into the ocean last year.

The group also is seeking better regulation of the sewage discharged from cargo ships and oil tankers.

Friends of the Earth said in a news release on May 1 that the sewage from the ships pollutes beaches, contaminates coral reefs and destroys marine ecology.

Sewage contamination also puts swimmers at elevated risk of illness and can make seafood caught by coastal fishermen unsafe to eat.

Also, discharges from ships disrupt coastal economies.

In 2012, ship sewage contributed to elevated levels of fecal coliform that led to more than 31,000 days of beach advisories and closings.

“Sewage-contaminated waters not only harm sea life, but also harm people who use these waters,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director at Friends of the Earth. “These ship sewage discharges contribute to the risk of serious, potentially life-threatening health effects such as gastrointestinal illnesses, hepatitis, ear nose and throat illnesses, vomiting, and respiratory diseases. The EPA reported in 2000 that its ship sewage treatment standards were out of date and needed an update. After 38 years, it is time for EPA to act.”

Sewage discharge close to shore has been banned in the New England area but not in the Northwest, the Gulf of Mexico or the Southeast.

Several years ago, the Friends of the Earth petitioned the EPA and asked that it update its 1976 performance standards and pollution limits for onboard marine sanitation devices — the systems used to treat sewage on ships.

The EPA has not proposed any changes.

A report in 2013 from the group indicated that Disney, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Cunard and Seabourn Cruise Line have installed advanced sewage treatment systems in a majority of their ships, while Carnival, Silversea, Costa and Crystal Cruises received failing grades in the review.