Cruising Into Environmental Disaster

With the capsizing of the cruise ship Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany in Italy, the world has learned a few things. First, how not to be a cruise ship captain. Second, the environmental threat that a large cruise ship can present, which may shortly follow the human catastrophe of several dozen lives lost. As of right now, very little sits between 2,400 tons of thick, low-grade fuel in the ship’s multiple, distributed fuel tanks and one of the most unspoiled maritime reserves in the Mediterranean, an area inhabited by some 700 species flora and fauna, including turtles, dolphins and seals. While the 114,500 ton cruise liner sits on an undersea ledge, shifting dangerously and unpredictably, Italian officials and a Dutch maritime recovery group are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to pump oil out of the fully loaded tanks before those tanks rupture and kill the surrounding coast of wildlife and plant life for years – and perhaps decades – to come.


While most people look at the news and see a cruise ship and not an oil tanker, the truth is that given the amount of fuel carried by the vessel, it might as well be a small oil tanker. While the tank has yet to begin leaking its fuel load, this may change at any time, resulting in Italy’s worst maritime environmental disaster since the tanker Amoco Milford Haven caught fire, exploded and sank off the coast of Genoa in 1991, spilling 50,000 tons of oil into the sea and polluting the coasts of Italy and Southern France. Clean-up of that disaster took 17 years.

Italian officials are hoping the Costa Concordia can be pumped out and removed before disaster occurs. But first, the wreck needs to be stabilized, and officials have yet to recover what they believe are all the dead.

“If the Costa Concordia slides further down and the fuel begins seeping into the water, we could be talking years and dozens of millions of euros before it can be cleared up,” said Luigi Alcaro, head of maritime emergencies at ISPRA, Italy’s government agency for the environment, told Reuters.

Clean-up won’t require simply drilling one hole and sticking a hose into the tank, says Alcaro.

“The oil on the ship is very thick and sticky, so you’d have to drill a hole in the hulk and warm it up to make it more fluid and easier to extract,” Alcaro told Reuters. “That could be done in about a month for the 13 external tanks on the ship. There are another 10 tanks inside, and those are a lot more difficult to reach.”

While the world watches the progress on the nightly news each night, the events are raising some questions as to the friendliness of the average cruise ship to the environment (even when it’s not broken and lying on its side). While most industries have tried to raise their profiles as friends of the environment, the cruise industry has merely raised its profile. Ships continue to get larger (average ship size has been increasing at the rate of roughly 90 feet every five years over the past 20 years) and more complex. They are intensely energy-hungry vessels, with ludicrously low fuel efficiency, and are increasingly being blamed for a host of environmental damages, including harm to ocean life.

There are currently more than 230 cruise ships operating in the world: all of them floating cities that offer the same kinds of services a small town would provide to its inhabitants. Some of these ships can carry more than 5,000 passengers and crew members (the largest in the world, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships, carry more than 5,400 people). Many of these ships operate in particularly pristine waters, to give people who’d like to see glaciers, for example, a chance to do so in comfort. As cruises become more numerous, there is an increase in the cumulative environmental effects of the ships’ operations, including negative effects on both air and water quality, according to the EPA’s “Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report.”

Think about it: after you use the toilet, take a shower or run a dishwasher full of dishes on a cruise ship, where does it go? It goes into a so-called “waste stream” that also includes bilge water (the water in the lowest parts of the ship that often contain oil and other chemicals). And the waste stream? More often than not, it goes into the ocean.

Pumping vast quantities of sewage into the ocean, particularly near the shore, is a great way to propagate dangerous pathogens, including salmonella, shigella, hepatitis A and E, and gastrointestinal viruses, according to the National Research Council. Sewage can contaminate both swimming areas and shellfish beds, ultimately breeding a variety of infectious, dangerous critters that are a threat to both human health (in the form of water-borne illnesses) and the environment. Shellfish eat by filtering particles from sea water. When they feed on water with infectious materials in it, they concentrate the bacteria and viruses, and the humans who eat those shellfish get an extra dose of illness along with their Clams Casino.

One answer to this problem has been to pass stringent laws for sewage treatment on cruise ships. The problem is, there is no one overriding law to be followed, and the ocean is a very, very big place. The states of Washington and Alaska (busy corridors for cruise ships) require ships to meet fairly strict sewage processing and water quality standards. The two states also have rules governing the discharge of graywater – water from sinks, showers, laundry, dishwashing and swimming pools – which must be treated to the highest possible standards. The discharge of untreated sewage sludge is against the law in the waters of both states, according to the Daily Green.

Sounds like a pain to comply with? Many cruise operators in the area agree, so rather than meet the stringent standards for waste discharge, many ships skip those states’ rules and discharge their waste in Canadian waters, where rules are less stringent, or in waters in the border areas between the U.S. and Canada, where enforcement would be a bureaucratic mess. Don’t want to follow the rules at all? It’s perfectly legal to discharge untreated sewage in most areas of the U.S. as long as you are at least three miles from shore.

In addition to sewage, cruise ships discharge large amounts of bilge water, which often contains fuel oil, emulsified grease, diesel, hydraulic oil and lube oil. Even in small quantities, the toxicity of these substances can be high, and it takes very little to begin killing or damaging sea life.

But beyond waste discharge, cruise ships are some of the worst offenders when it comes to fuel consumption and emissions. Let’s take the Queen Mary 2, which was built in 2003 and remains the largest ocean liner ever built. According to Climate Care, the Queen Mary 2 emits 0.43 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger mile. (Compare this to 0.257 kilograms for a long-haul flight.) While flying has taken a beating from environmentalists who entreat us to reduce our carbon footprint, it is by far greener to fly than to cruise. Many cruisers do both: in order to reach embarkation points for cruise ships, many people must fly to their destinations, racking up even more carbon emissions.

The Climate Outreach Information Network presents some eye-opening numbers for the operation of another grande dame, the Queen Elizabeth II, an ocean liner that dominated the Southampton, England to New York route from 1969 until 2008. (The vessel is now owned by a Dubai investment company.) That ship burns 433 tons of fuel a day. Given that it takes six days to cruise from Southampton to New York, a full ship would mean that each passenger would consume 2.9 tons to cross the ocean. One ton of shipping fuel contains 0.85 tonnes of carbon, which produces 3.1 tons of carbon dioxide when burnt. This means that each passenger on the QEII was personally responsible for 9.1 tons of carbon emissions. To travel from the UK to New York on the ship, a passenger would create about 7.6 times as much carbon as making the same trip by airplane.

Even on today’s newer cruise ships which are reputed to be more environmentally friendly, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that

See Norway's beautiful fjords...through a haze of cruise ship pollution. Source: Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU)

passengers aboard a typical ship will daily generate:

  • 21,000 gallons of sewage;
  • One ton of garbage;
  • 170,000 gallons of waste water from sinks, showers and laundry;
  • More than 25 pounds of batteries, fluorescent lights, medical wastes and expired chemicals;
  • Up to 6,400 gallons of contaminated bilge water from engines; and
  • 8,500 plastic bottles.

In addition, as cruise ships generally incinerate most of their garbage, they are significant contributors to smog in coastal communities and on the ocean. Between emissions and garbage incineration, it is estimated that a 3,000 passenger cruise ship generates air pollution comparable to that of 12,000 cars in one day.

Cruise ships are also particularly unkind to coral reefs (since they tend to stick closer to the shore, where coral reefs proliferate, than cargo ships or tankers). There are 109 countries in the world with coral reefs, and in about 90 of them, scientists have witnessed damage to these reefs that is specifically attributed to cruise ship anchors and sewage as well as tourists and souvenir sellers breaking off bits of the reef, according to Ocean Planet). The group found that a ship’s anchor dropped in a coral reef for one day destroyed an area half the size of a football field.

“Quite aside from the carbon emissions, there is a high cost to the ocean,” said Richard Hammon, travel columnist for UK paper the Guardian. “The cruise industry has a poor record in terms of waste water treatment and disposal, and therefore it has to clean up its act if it is to be considered as an environmentally friendly means of travel. The size of the industry is also crucial: cruising is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry.”

While some cruise owners have attempted to clean up practices – at least in countries with a robust environmental protection agencies and a large number of environmental advocates – there is little incentive to police cruise ships in countries desperate for tourist dollars, even if those dollars are sparse. As most cruise ship vacations are all-inclusive, it’s the cruise lines, not the destinations, that benefit. In fact, while locals are able to profit little from the arrival of a ship, they are left will the full waste and pollution impact of the ship after it leaves.

Environmental groups and U.S. states that see a lot of cruise ships have been scourging the U.S. federal government for failing to put regulations with teeth in place. Most rules that do exist are largely voluntary, reports the Daily Green, or so-called “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOUs) that cruise companies can choose to observe or disregard as they wish. As a result, states and localities have had to take on the cruise lines themselves. In the state of Washington, the Port of Seattle now asks cruise ships to connect to on-shore hookups that provide power while ships are in port, allowing them to turn off their engines, reducing pollution along the shore. (As much as one-third of a cruise ship’s emissions occur when it is idling in port.) As Washington State alone has seen 87 instances of confirmed illegal dumping by cruise ships over a five year period, the state is taking a stronger stance to try and protect their local environments. Alaska, also heavily affected by cruising, is considering similar rules.

On an international basis, the United States has signed onto international standards regulating emissions from ships – including cruise ships – that will be enforced by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an agency of the United Nations, beginning this year. The rules will govern the emissions of mono-nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2), sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. These new rules will require cruise ships to scrub their emissions more carefully.

The cruise industry, which is dominated by two companies, Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean, however, has never shown much incentive to reducing their environmental impact. (You can find a list of major fines on cruise lines for environmental damage here.) For environmentally minded people who enjoy cruising, the onus is on them to choose more responsible cruise companies: both Holland America and Disney Cruises have taken significant steps to reduce their ships’ environmental impact, notes Treehugger. Willing to forgo some typical cruise-ship luxuries? Consider some of the smaller cruise ships that rely on sails, at least in part. Aside from the environmental benefits, these ships can also make port in more off-the-beaten-path places that are forbidden to the larger, dirtier cruise ships.

Alternatively, you can jump on an airplane and call the whole cruise off.

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