The Verdict is In: Cruise Lines Fail Environmental Report Card

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Report cardThere has been a lot of talk regarding cruise ship accidents because of a recent spike in passenger injuries, illnesses, crimes, and disappearances. Maritime authorities have questioned the industry’s stance on safety and from what we have seen here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A., it’s not all that great.

Cruise lines have a responsibility to protect their guests from harm, which includes having state-of-the-art technology like infrared sensors to detect overboard  passengers, backup generators in case of a fire, and training crew members to be adept at handling emergency situations. However, safety doesn’t just apply to passengers or crew, it also applies to the environment and the industry isn’t doing all that well in that department either.

Though big, modern cruise ships can be a lot of fun, they can leave a lasting impact on the environment and marine wildlife. Ships emit fuel, wastewater, garbage, and a slew of other non-decomposable items like cups and bottles that may get thrown overboard. These all pose a serious threat to ecosystems. And with over 230 cruise ships operating worldwide, this can mean absolute disaster for the environment.

Ships these days are extremely advanced and lines have many options available to limit a vessel’s impact on the environment, yet not much is being done in this regard. Lines are rolling out with more ships that are even larger than their predecessors and are adding new itineraries each year. Traffic on the high seas is increasing, with many vessels sailing to and from the same ports on a daily basis. We can only imagine how much harm this is causing the environment.

In our experience, several cruise lines have hidden a lot of critical information regarding their impact in the environment. After all, there are several organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulate cruise ship emissions and other vessel pollutants and can impose heavy fines on liners that disregard environmental preservation laws.

Both individual states and the EPA have laws regarding cruise ship pollution discharge, especially Alaska, which is home to some of the most pristine waters and abundant wildlife in the nation. But back in 2011, Princess Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., violated the EPA’s Clean Water Act, dumping 66,000 gallons of pool water into the notoriously clean waters of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. As a result, Princess was hit with a $20,000 fine, but the line didn’t even want to take responsibility for their actions, blaming the discharge on a software malfunction that caused the ship’s pool dump valves to open by accident.

If lines can invest millions of dollars on entertainment options fleet wide, surely they can invest in better software technology to prevent such a terrible accident from taking place and damaging a natural ecosystem. Unfortunately, as our cruise lawyers have noted time and time again, the cruise industry didn’t become a multibillion-dollar giant by allocating funds toward better safety options. They got rich by saving money on safety improvements, which in reality, are far less expensive than the cost of putting in new restaurants, water slides and spas.

Something must be done to improve both passenger AND environmental safety, but at least the EPA is on the cruise industry’s case regarding toxic emissions. Each year, cruise lines are graded on their ability to limit their impact on the environment by a nonprofit organization called Friends of the Earth. Using information from the EPA, the organization releases a Cruise Ship Report Card in hopes that lines will take action to improve their environmental safety protocols. But it’s no surprise that year after year, lines score poorly.

Last year, our cruise lawyers reported on how only one cruise line received an “A” grade – a first for the organization. That company, Disney Cruise Line, also received the “most improved” accolade. Disney ships are equipped with advanced sewage treatment systems and several other environmentally-friendly options that limit their impact on marine ecosystems.

However, it’s no surprise that Carnival Cruise Line, the largest cruise fleet in the world and the line most blamed for lacking safety features, received a “D+” grade.  So why did Carnival score so poorly last year? Because it’s sanitation systems are out of date on most ships. Last May, following the infamous fire onboard the Carnival Triumph, CEO Gerry Cahill noted that the company was investing millions of dollars on improving safety across all ships, but we haven’t seen a single improvement yet. Carnival might want to tack on environmental safety upgrades to that list, if it ever decides to get around to it.

Those were last year’s scores, so how do they compare with the recently released 2013 Cruise Report Card? Surprisingly, it seems lines are actually taking advice from Friends of the Earth and the EPA because this year’s scores were better than last year’s.

Once again, Disney Cruise Line aced its report card, boasting the title of North America’s ONLY cruise line to receive an “A” grade. Sixteen other cruise lines were graded, with Friends of the Earth looking specifically to see whether the lines had installed advanced sewage and wastewater treatment systems as were suggested and whether the lines violated any environmental laws.

Carnival improved, but only slightly, bumping up only half a point to a “C-“ from last year’s “D-”. However, its sister companies Princess and Holland America did pretty well, each receiving a “B” grade. After the Costa Concordia tragedy in 2012, we would have thought Costa would have done a lot better, but alas, Carnival Corp.’s history of failing safety in all fronts continued with the environmental report card. Costa Cruises bombed with an “F” grade. Luxury lines Crystal Cruises, MSC Cruises and P&O Cruises also failed with an “F”. Interestingly, environmental ineptitude seems to transcend price points in cruising.

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity both received average grades, with a solid “C” for Royal and a “C+” for Celebrity. Unfortunately, average just doesn’t cut it.

Individually, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Silversea, and Carnival all passed their Alaska water quality compliance test. Air pollution was pretty bad across all lines, with Disney and Princess being the only lines to score “B” and “B-” grades. The rest of the lines’ scores were mostly “F” grades. Sewage treatment varied across the board, but many lines received “A” grades.

Hopefully the cruise industry takes the information on the report card seriously and adopts more efficient measures to reduce environmental pollution. There’s still much to work on and only a few more months left in the year. Who knows, maybe the industry will surprise us next year and receive mostly “A” and “B” grades. But there just no excuse for a “D” or an “F”.

A lot goes into creating the perfect cruise experience and the natural beauty of the environment is a major factor. Cruise lines must learn to protect the waters they rely on to travel and make a greater effort to keep them clean and safe from harm.