Cruise on down to our dumping ground

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      Vancouver has wooed the Mercury away from Seattle this year, becoming the 1,900-passenger ship's home port for the 2007 Alaska cruise season. On May 4, the Mercury will make its first visit of the year to Vancouver, passing under the Lions Gate Bridge, slipping through Burrard Inlet, and tying up at the pier under Canada Place's fake sails.

      The Celebrity Cruises, Inc. ship will return more than 20 times this season, and on November 2 it will be the last cruise ship to leave the port. Vancouver cruise boosters–including the Vancouver Sun, which called it a "major victory"–have greeted the Mercury moving in with unabashed enthusiasm. An estimated 65,000 extra passengers will visit the city because of the Mercury. The cruise sector generates more than 13,000 jobs annually, the Vancouver Port Authority estimates, and each ship brings $2 million to the region every time it ties up at dock.

      What they fail to mention is that the Mercury got into a spot of trouble last year in Washington state for spewing sewage into Juan de Fuca Strait, between Washington's Olympic Peninsula and southern Vancouver Island. During the investigation, the ship's owners admitted fouling Canadian waters three times. The infractions cost Celebrity Cruises $100,000 in fines in Washington. In Canada, it paid nothing.

      "The excuse was, 'We'll pay the fine in Washington but we won't pay the fine in Canada because Canada doesn't care,'" said Ross Klein, a social-work professor at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, and a leading critic of the cruise industry. "Even if you're brain-dead, it's obvious if you've got to follow regulations in California, Washington, and Alaska, and you don't in Canada, what are you going to do in Canada? That in itself speaks volumes."

      The Mercury's inconsistent treatment is indicative of how the cruise industry has evolved on the Pacific coast, with each jurisdiction applying its own standards to the ships. At one end of the run is Alaska, which, thanks to an August 2006 referendum, has by far the toughest laws. At the other end is Washington state, which has a memorandum of understanding with the industry that is at least strong enough to allow the state to fine ships like the Mercury when they dump in Washington waters.

      In the middle is B.C., which depends on its federal government to protect the coast. Canada has never fined a cruise ship for a violation and is unlikely to do so under current guidelines. "It's a green light to empty your holding tank between Washington state and Alaska," Klein said. Canada's weak guidelines and lack of enforcement send a clear message to cruise-ship owners about how they are to regard B.C., he said. "It means it's the toilet bowl."

      THE MERCURY IS JUST one of 33 Vancouver-based cruise ships that will be churning through B.C. on the Alaska run this summer, which actually kicked off on April 8 with the arrival of the Zaandam. Altogether, they will make about 300 trips and carry an estimated 930,000 passengers, each paying an average of $1,500, up the coast and back. Many of the ships carry more than 2,000 people, making them the equivalent of floating cities, with all the consumer needs and wastes you would expect from a luxury resort of that size. (The next generation of ships, the first of which will be ready in 2009, will carry more than 8,000 passengers. Besides the liquid waste, each person on a cruise produces 3.5 kilograms of garbage per day, Klein said, much more than they would in their land-based lives.) Much of the ships' time in the province will be in the confined waters of Hecate Strait, the Inside Passage, and between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

      "There is a great concern that Canada could become a dumping ground," said Fred Felleman, a Seattle-based researcher who consults on cruise-ship issues for the Bluewater Network, a national organization fighting marine pollution. With the relatively contained waters and vulnerable whale populations, he said, that's a worry. "I don't believe there's any place we should be dumping sewage sludges, but if you have to dump sludges, you don't want to do it in the Inside Passage."

      But the current rules are likely making it more and more attractive for the cruise companies to do just that. "It's going to be Haro Strait, Georgia Strait, or Queen Charlotte Sound, would be my guess."

      And Felleman stressed that Washington state's rules aren't nearly tough enough either. "As far as rules go, Washington state is the only state on the West Coast that doesn't have actual regulations in place." Instead, the industry is governed by a voluntary code of conduct set out in its memorandum of understanding that is nonbinding and allows some questionable practices, like dumping waste in marine protected areas.

      In the case of the Mercury, the MOU allowed Washington to look at the ship's logbooks in 2006 to see where it had released sewage. The state based the fines on 10 different discharges made over nine days in the previous year. In total, the ship dumped some 1.9 million litres of sewage and "grey water" into Juan de Fuca Strait. Despite admitting that three of the offences happened on the Canadian side of the border, and Washington agreeing to reduce the fine by $30,000, Celebrity paid the full $100,000 "voluntarily as a good faith demonstration of their concern for Washington State's marine environment", according to the state's Department of Ecology. Klein said it is notable that the company expressed concern for Washington's marine environment but not for Canada's or even for the "marine environment" in general. The lack of concern is understandable, he added, since Canada itself shows little interest in protecting its environment.

      Cruise companies are unlikely to show similar concern in Canada, where regulations don't demand the same respect. In B.C., cruise ships are governed under federal regulations by Transport Canada, along with other ships. There is also a set of "guidelines" specifically for cruise ships that summarizes the international and national standards that apply while they are in Canada. The guidelines say the ships must be at least three nautical miles from land to discharge treated wastewater, and at least 12 nautical miles from land to release untreated sewage. They also say the ships should have a sewage treatment plant, and that "biosolids or sludges that are produced by sewage treatment systems should be landed ashore, where possible, for disposal by a licensed facility or service."

      Donna Spalding, the director of administration for the NorthWest CruiseShip Association, a Vancouver organization that represents nine of the large cruise companies, said, "These guidelines are similar; in fact, they're pretty much the same as the Washington MOU."

      The Canadian guidelines fail, however, to set out enforcement mechanisms or penalties. Not to worry, a Transport Canada statement assures: "The cruise ship industry has reported a high rate of compliance with the guidelines."

      Although the guidelines may not include penalties for dumping sewage, Spalding said, they do require the ships to file reports with the government at the end of the season. "The guidelines require you to report, and they are reporting," she said. "If there's any sense there is damage, we have the ability”¦to review the incident and decide what, if any, damage there was and what, if anything, needs to be done."

      And if they don't report? "I don't know. Nobody's been in that position."

      So why didn't Transport Canada act after the Mercury's admission?

      "Unfortunately, there's nothing in the current Canada Shipping Act with respect to sewage," said Transport Canada spokesperson Kirsten Goodnough from Ottawa. "There's nothing in the Canada Shipping Act where Transport Canada can take enforcement action."

      Asked how Canada's treatment of cruise ships compares to American states on the West Coast, Goodnough said she couldn't comment on U.S. regulations but that new Canadian standards coming later this year will mirror international shipping rules. The agency developed the new rules "in close consultation" with the shipping industry, she said. The rules won't have anything tailored to cruise ships, but they will address sewage and other issues that affect the cruise industry.

      "We identified obviously there's a need for stricter regulations to protect the marine environment," she said. "It's a complicated issue. We're in a period of transition here at Transport Canada.”¦Strengthening our regulations is a priority for Transport Canada."

      VOLUNTARY GUIDELINES leave the B.C. coast vulnerable, said Bruce Wallace, a researcher with the Vancouver Island Public Interest Group and a coauthor of the 2003 study Ripple Effects: The Need to Assess the Impacts of Cruise Ships in Victoria, B.C. "It's nonbinding. It's the industry monitoring itself," he said. "We really need to question, is the industry the best watchdog of itself? Where else would we allow this?"

      There's a real need, he said, for B.C. to take steps to bring its regulations up to the standards of its neighbours. "I think the real pressure on B.C. is going to follow from the decision in Alaska in August."

      In Alaska, a group of citizens forced a referendum that will change how the cruise industry does business in the state. Voters approved charging a $50 tax per passenger to be shared between Alaska communities, applying income tax to the ships' operations in the state, and taxing the ships' gambling profits. They also voted to charge $4 per passenger to pay for putting a marine engineer on every ship while in Alaskan waters to observe ship waste-treatment practices, verify logbook entries, examine discharges, and make sure the ships are maintaining their wastewater-treatment systems. The rules became law in December 2006 and are in place for the 2007 cruise-ship season.Gershon Cohen, an activist in Haines, Alaska, with the group Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters, was one of the main promoters of the new Alaska rules. "B.C. does have the weakest set of rules in place, that's true," he said. "Nothing close to what Alaska has now."

      B.C. remains in the situation that Alaska was in up to now, Cohen said, meaning locals will continue to have no idea what the ships are doing in B.C. waters. One way around that is to put monitors on the ships, as Alaska will. Another is to use electronic transponders that would send a signal to land-based authorities every time a discharge line is opened or closed. "Without monitors or transponders, they can do anything they want out there, and tell us anything they want, and we'll never know."

      The NorthWest CruiseShip Association's Spalding agreed the new Alaskan rules will make a difference for Canada, but she argued the effect will be positive. Ships must have their wastewater-treatment systems working before they get to Alaska, and the effluent has to be tested a month before they arrive in the state. "You can't turn them on and off. They're being used 24/7," she said. "By default, we benefit from that."

      John Shively, the vice president of government and community relations for Holland America Line, said British Columbians don't need to worry about their coastline becoming the preferred place for cruise ships to discharge waste. "I don't think so, and for a couple reasons," he said from his Anchorage, Alaska, office.

      For one thing, he said, most of the ships now have wastewater-treatment systems that clean sewage to a standard that many of the ports they visit don't match. As for the sludge, it either gets taken off in the turnaround ports–Vancouver or Seattle, for example–or is dumped beyond the 12 nautical miles from the shoreline. "Most of the bad stuff is eaten by the microbes. The sludge is pretty benign stuff."

      Plus, he said, the ships are covered by both federal and international law while in B.C.

      Memorial University's Klein said the "huge volumes" of sewage sludge are still deleterious and much of it ends up going overboard. "It's a concentrated version of the same problem."

      Seattle activist Felleman said it's not enough for the industry to say "Trust us." There have been enough examples of cruise ships dumping wastes and then lying about it, he said, that governments need to make more efforts to monitor. One way, he said, would be for the new Alaskan rangers to board the boats in Seattle and monitor the whole run through B.C. to Alaska. It would be a huge improvement, he said. "Right now we're really, shall we say, pissing in the dark."

      Klein, who has written two books on the industry, also runs the Web site Cruise Junkie (, where he keeps track of things like onboard disease outbreaks, the surprisingly high number of people who actually disappear from cruise ships, and environmental infractions. His list of "pollution and environmental violations and fines" chronicles more than 150 infractions worldwide going back to 1992. Despite a rapidly growing cruise industry on both the east and west coasts, Canada is conspicuously absent from the list. The absence could mean the companies are behaving better in Canada, but Klein said he doesn't think so.

      "These show prosecutions," he said. "Canada doesn't prosecute. We know of cases where there have been discharges in Canadian waters and the government ignores it." The Mercury incident is one example of Canada failing to act despite a public admission of sewage-dumping. Another happened off Cape Breton a year ago. "There just isn't the political will to take on an industry that's polluting Canadian waters," Klein said. "They've got to be looking for it, and then they have to prosecute when they do look for it."

      If the authorities don't regulate and monitor the industry, he said, the companies will "abuse" the local environment. "Where they're forced to comply, they behave. Where there aren't regulations or laws, they do what they can get away with. That's corporate behaviour anywhere."

      The Canadian government is working on its new shipping regulations, expected to take effect later this year, but observers say they are unlikely to make a difference to the cruise industry. "They're better than what we've currently got," said Mike Richards, the Nanaimo-based green-boating coordinator for the Georgia Strait Alliance. "They're not perfect."

      They still won't be as strong as what Alaska and Washington have. "We'll have to wait and see how effective the enforcement mechanisms will actually be," Richards said. "Without a strong enforcement or monitoring mechanism, we just don't know for sure [how well they'll work]."

      It would be better, he said, to target the vacation vessels themselves, which are unlike any other ships travelling the coast. "We would like to see specific legislation for cruise ships, absolutely. There's so many people on cruise ships and they're transiting our most precious waters regularly."

      Before Canadians decide whether or not it's good news when ships like the Mercury relocate to Vancouver and when the industry grows, we need to look beyond the visitor numbers and dollar figures and take a close look at what else they're leaving behind.