Cruise Ship Law, Maritime Matter of the Week

Where Has Maritime Safety Gone?


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Alaska Senate passes bill to reduce safety regulations for cruise ship wastewater discharge

Alaskans are going to have to be a little more careful the next time they decide to cook salmon for dinner. The state’s senate has just passed a bill that will make cruise ship wastewater rules so lax, that native Alaskan fish like salmon may soon be getting contaminated with copper, ammonia and other dangerous chemicals.

The issue stems from a bill proposed by the Parnell administration to cut back cruise ship wastewater standards that had been approved by voters in 2006. The Senate voted in favor of the bill on Tuesday, while the legislation already passed in the House.

This is the first bill to clear both the House and Senate this year, and with an issue
like environmental safety on the line, the quick decision to reduce wastewater emission standards doesn’t say much about where the government’s priorities lie.

What the new legislation will do is allow the cruise industry to discharge ammonia into the state’s pristine waters. Ammonia, which is basically composed of human waste and other dangerous metals, can devastate marine life and lead fish and other animals to become sick – not to mention the humans that eat the contaminated creatures.

Unfortunately, wastewater discharge would have been completely eliminated in 2015 because of the 2006 initiative, protecting the fragile Alaskan ecosystem.

While proponents of the bill claim it will not lower Alaska’s water quality standards, it doesn’t take an expert to understand that ammonia, copper and all the other chemicals in wastewater will undoubtedly affect the environment in a negative way.

According to Alaska Senator Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, the state Department of Environmental Conservation will still require the cruise industry to treat the wastewater, but in the wake of cruise ship accidents like the Carnival Triumph fire and the Costa Concordia capsizing, do officials really believe cruise companies are going to keep their wastewater “safe”?

The environmental group Oceana explains that on average, a cruise ship produces “25,000 gallons of sewage from toilets, 143,000 gallons of sewage from sinks, galleys and showers, seven tons of garbage and solid waste, 15 gallons of toxic chemicals, and 7,000 gallons of oily bilge water.”

That’s just one cruise ship, so imagine the damage that the hundreds of vessels traveling through Alaska each year will cause. The result will be billions of gallons of toxins released into the water for fish and animals to feed on and become sick.

The new bill will also eliminate a state scientific advisory panel on cruise ship wastewater that was created in 2009. It’s clear the Alaskan government doesn’t even want to be reminded of the consequences this legislation is going to have.

Threatened by the powerful cruise industry, Alaska, which was once a leader in environmental safety, especially when it came to cruise lines, has buckled in the face of losing a profit from the thousands of travelers that visit the state each year by sea. At one point, the Alaskan government tried to levy a $50 per passenger tax to offset the damage caused by cruise ships to the state’s delicate environment, but companies threatened to cancel their itineraries and so the government caved.

If the cruise industry has no qualms about violating safety protocols when laws are in place, it will certainly disregard any consideration for environmental safety when no laws are in place to regulate it. In 2009 alone, 41 cruise ship pollution violations were reported. Who knows how many vessels got away with dumping waste and who knows how many more are going to continue this practice.

In fact, just last month, Princess Cruises was fined $20,000 for dumping wastewater into Alaska’s Glacier Bay by the Environmental Protection Agency. The line, which is a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., was found in violation of the Clean Water Act in May 2011 when the 2,590-passenger Golden Princess discharged pool water into Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which is home to thousands of different animal, fish and plant species.

Hopefully the Clean Water Act (CWA) will at least keep cruise lines at bay and help protect the environment in Alaska when wastewater discharge rules are completely thrown out. The act was passed in 1972 with the goal of stopping vessels from releasing toxic substances into water and was later amended to include additional rules protecting against water pollution and maintaining the proper safety and water quality standards that are necessary for human recreation.

There are certain technicalities when it comes to what areas are covered by the CWA, which cruise lines will likely try to find loopholes in. Because the CWA covers waters with a “significant nexus” to “navigable waters,” when it comes to “significant nexus,” the term remains open to judicial interpretation. “Navigable waters” is also a term that has been thrown under the microscope, with some claiming it applies to all the waters of the United States, including territorial seas, while the 2006 case Rapanos v. United States, led the term “waters of the United States” to include “only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water “forming geographic features” that are described in ordinary parlance as “streams[,] … oceans, rivers, [and] lakes.”

Amidst so many accidents, injuries and illnesses that have plagued the cruise industry only two months into the 2013 cruise season, who knows how many more violations of safety will occur because of Alaska’s disregard for environmental pollution regulations.

Pretty soon it will be difficult to even navigate through waters because of the billions of gallons of waste that will corrupt the world’s oceans because of negligent cruise operators.

Normally cruise ships on the high seas are governed by federal maritime laws which are uniform though out the country. However individual states can pass laws with respect to the territorial waters adjacent to each state so long as they do not directly conflict with federal maritime law. This is where legal problems can occur. Also it is an area that the cruise ships can exploit to lessen the ability to be subject to state law. It is an ever changing area that constantly needs to be monitored.

Photo Credits: Cruise Ship Wastewater and its Harmful Effects

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