Expanding the local cruise ship industry would seem to be money in the bank for the New Orleans area. Mayor Ray Nagin's goal to build multiple cruise terminals along the Mississippi River -- including a Bywater terminal currently under consideration by the Port of New Orleans -- is a popular idea. The International Council of Cruise Lines says the state reaped $554 million from cruise ships during 2001. Even if that figure is inflated, the influx of more ships carrying 2,000 to 3,000 passengers each clearly bodes well for the local economy.
"The feeling here is 98 percent positive [about a second terminal in Bywater]," says Daniel W. McElmurray, president of the Bywater Neighborhood Association. But McElmurray is also among the growing number of New Orleanians who are concerned about the environmental hazards of cruise ship waste. Last month, Gambit Weekly reported that an average cruise ship generates about 30,000 gallons of sewage, or blackwater, daily ("Making a Stink," Nov. 18). Ships also produce up to 255,000 gallons of graywater from showers, sinks, galleys and laundries. States from Maine to California are debating cruise ship legislation, and Alaska has enacted the country's strictest laws regulating ships that enter that state's waters.
So far, the debate has gone unnoticed in Louisiana. "They do need to address that issue," says McElmurray. "It's waste wherever you dump it. It might not affect Bywater immediately, but it affects us as part of Louisiana."
We agree. Currently, nobody really knows what effect cruise ship dumping has on local waters -- or our seafood industry. Each of the three cruise lines currently operating out of New Orleans told Gambit Weekly that it takes proper care of its waste. The Carnival and Royal Caribbean lines say their ships never dump raw sewage, and they discharge graywater and treated blackwater at least 12 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. Norwegian says it discharges graywater and treated blackwater four miles from shore, and untreated blackwater 12 miles out.
Those distances exceed federal standards, which set a three-mile limit for discharges. But those regulations haven't been revisited since the Clean Water Act of 1972. "I think it's fair to say that the regulations are quite old and should be updated," says Craig Vogt, deputy director of the Oceans and Coastal Protection Division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In Alaska, major cruise lines agreed to participate in a program to determine if their ships were properly treating sewage. Only one of 42 samples had an adequately low level of fecal matter. No studies have been performed in Louisiana's coastal waters, and nobody can say if cruise ship waste is contaminating oyster beds or contributing to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Even more alarming, state agencies -- including the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Health and Hospitals -- all report no knowledge of the issue. The Coast Guard admits its twice-yearly inspections of cruise ships amount only to checking the ships' equipment to see if it's working; inspectors monitor no waste.
That's not good enough. Some cruise lines say they are putting better treatment systems on their ships, but the industry has a poor record for policing itself. Between 1998 and 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice charged several cruise lines with illegal dumping, falsifying record books and lying to the Coast Guard. Norwegian, Carnival and Royal Caribbean all received fines ranging from $1.5 million to $30.5 million.
Now, Norwegian appears to be leading clean-up efforts with a pledge to install advanced wastewater treatment systems on its 11 boats -- including the New Orleans-based Norwegian Dream, scheduled to be newly outfitted by the end of 2004. Other solutions include legislating a no-discharge zone in state waters, a policy now under consideration in California. Florida and Hawaii have signed voluntary memoranda of understanding committing cruise lines to abide by certain environmental standards. But Dana Dubose, the cruise pollution campaign director for the national environmental group Oceana, stresses the importance of monitoring and enforcement. "Legislation is going to be needed," Dubose says, pointing to a 2002 incident in California in which Crystal Cruises violated a voluntary agreement and discharged 36,000 gallons of graywater and treated sewage in a marine sanctuary.
Louisiana should begin testing local waters immediately. We should also request cruise ships to submit to waste tests similar to those conducted in Alaska. We need to know what's out there. Beyond that, cruise ship regulation is a job for the federal government. A patchwork of state regulations invites loopholes, disparate standards, and the prospect of states competing to offer fewer regulations. Louisiana's congressional delegation has demonstrated its effectiveness in raising awareness of coastal erosion. Now, we ask our representatives to join with delegations from other port states in demanding that EPA revisit its cruise ship standards. At a minimum, federal law should require phasing in advanced treatment systems on all cruise ships. As we continue to profit from the oceans, more than ever it's in our best interests to protect them.