The man in the fuzzy dolphin suit waves to passing motorists on Convention Center Boulevard, while on the sidewalk, a small but dedicated group of environmentalists holds a press conference to make their case against cruise lines. "We're excited to see cruising come to New Orleans. We think it can be a great economic boom for New Orleans," says Aaron Viles of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). "But it should not come at the cost of our environment."
The press conference was organized by the environmental group Oceana to draw attention to the cruise industry's sewage discharge practices ("Making a Stink," Nov. 18, 2003). A single cruise ship generates about 30,000 gallons of sewage each day, and what happens to that waste has become a loaded question. Environmentalists maintain that the sewage is inadequately treated before it's dumped into the ocean, and charge that outdated regulations on where sewage can be dumped pose a threat to public health and the environment.
Oceana's mission is two-fold: to educate the public about the issue and to push the cruise lines and the government toward stricter regulations. The Louisiana campaign has only gotten as far as education, but Amy Faulring, field organizer for Oceana, says that's a good start. "Lots of people I've talked to are concerned about this issue," she says. "I think the cruise industry as a whole has captured attention in New Orleans, with Mayor Nagin making a statement about attracting more cruise ships and building another terminal along the river. Unfortunately, more ships means more pollution in our waters."
In terms of legislation to create stricter regulations, Louisiana is well behind the national curve. Alaska put cruise ships in the spotlight by passing strict legislation in 2001 governing wastewater discharge in state waters. Since then, many other coastal states have considered following suit. Sewage discharge regulations have been discussed in the state capitols of California, Washington, Maine and Hawaii, but no other bills have been successfully passed.
When legislation dies, states and cruise lines often sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs), like the ones the industry has signed with Hawaii and Florida. MOUs have drawn fire from environmental groups, which say that these voluntary agreements on discharge practices are worthless without monitoring and enforcement provisions.
Pam Parker of Maine's Department of Environmental Protection says she was dismayed when legislation stalled and talk turned to MOUs. "I think this is strictly politics," she says. "I think somebody got a hold of some legislators and said, 'This is going to be bad business,' but I think that's something of a red herring. I've got to think that the reason why the cruise ships don't want this to happen is they really don't want the precedent to be set for the states exerting licensing control."
The signing of an MOU is no guarantee that the controversy will die down. Washington state agreed on an MOU on March 23, and already environmentalists are decrying the agreement. In Hawaii, where many might have thought the matter was laid to rest by a 2002 MOU, new legislation is pending. In Florida, where Parker says "there's no political will for stricter regulation at the state level" due to the state's economic dependence on the cruise industry, the city of Key West is bucking the tide with a proposal to ban sewage dumping in the sensitive ecosystem around the Florida Keys.
Meanwhile, a new battle has just been joined in Washington, D.C., where federal legislation was introduced April 1 in both the Senate and the House. The Clean Cruise Ships Act of 2004 would obviate the need for state-by-state action with strong regulations that would ban all discharges within 12 miles of shore and create a strict monitoring program.
Kira Schmidt, the campaign manager for the Bluewater Network's cruise ship campaign, has watched the various states' struggles for legislation. "I think federal regulation is a better way to go, then we wouldn't have to do this whole piecemeal approach," she says. But in a coda that doesn't bode well for the Clean Cruise Ships Act, she adds, "I think it's going to be more difficult."