Seattle-to-Alaska cruise ships pose pollution threat in Puget Sound

Cruise ships like this one pass by Edmonds on their way from Seattle to Alaska. (Photo courtesy of InvestigateWest)

Publisher’s note: Given the proximity of Edmonds to Puget Sound, and the fact that these cruise ships regularly pass by Edmonds on their way to Alaska, My Edmonds News is running this investigative report in conjunction with other Puget Sound media outlets on Sunday.

By Lee van der Voo


After a week aboard the Carnival Spirit, its passengers can’t help but hit the pier a little tired. They’re grinning too, even as they struggle with baggage and finding their hotels and taxis to the airport. Their vacations on the ship, standing 13 decks tall behind them, are still fresh in their minds. With its 16 lounges and bars, three restaurants and four swimming pools – one with a cascading water slide – the Spirit offered quite an adventure for the 2,124 people on board.

Owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, the biggest cruise operator in the world, the Spirit now docks weekly in Seattle’s Elliott Bay. It’s the biggest of the ships home-ported in Seattle in 2010. And its size is also a symbol of the burgeoning Alaska cruise market increasingly making Seattle its home and expected to bring nearly 900,000 tourists through Seattle by the end of the 2010 cruising season in October.

Cruising pumps dollars into Seattle and Washington state, $1.7 million into the local economy every time a ship docks in Seattle and about $16 million in state and local tax coffers annually. But those benefits come at a cost. Money from the cruise industry – which generates billions in profits every year – trades on environmental health. The very attractions that draw tourists to Alaska-bound ships, such as pristine sanctuary waters, marine wildlife and mountainous seascapes, can be harmed by pollution from cruise ships.

In a single day, the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates passengers aboard a typical cruise ship will generate:

  • 21,000 gallons of sewage
  • One ton of garbage
  • 170,000 gallons of wastewater from sinks, showers and laundry
  • More than 25 pounds of batteries, fluorescent lights, medical wastes and expired chemicals
  • Up to 6,400 gallons of oily bilge water from engines
  • Four plastic bottles per passenger –  about 8,500 bottles per day for the Carnival Spirit

Cruise ships incinerate between 75 and 85 percent of garbage according to the EPA in its 2008 study, contributing to smog in coastal communities and on the ocean. They also release incinerator ash and sewage sludge – blobs of concentrated toxins from the bottom of waste treatment facilities – into the ocean. They contribute nutrients, metals, ammonia, pharmaceutical waste, chemical cleaners and detergent to deep marine environments from sewage treatment systems that either don’t work as planned or aren’t able to remove such substances, according to tests in Washington and Alaska, interviews with state officials, the EPA study, and information provided by the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. It’s legal to discharge untreated sewage in most areas of the United States farther than three miles from shore.

Cruise ships burn fuel, much of it a cheap grade, which will continue until new international fuel standards take effect in 2012. A 2005 study done by WashPIRG, a public interest advocacy group based in Washington, estimates 3,000-passenger ship generates the air pollution equivalent of more than 12,000 cars in a single day.

“A lot of them burn what’s called bunker-C and it’s so dirty and it’s so black and it’s so awful, they have to heat it until they can get it to the point where they can move it around the pipes. It’s like tar,” said Elizabeth Gilpin, an air resources associate for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

States, including Washington and Alaska, are making efforts to increase oversight of cruise ships and assess their impacts on local environments. Absent consistent federal and international regulations for cruise ships, however, they are creating a patchwork of regulatory and sometimes voluntary systems that allow operators to pick and choose what rules they comply with and where to discharge waste. The situation is pushing some problems related to cruise pollution farther out to sea, where bad actors can cruise out of sight of regulators.

InvestigateWest found that ships thought to be abiding by tough new standards in Alaska and voluntary Washington standards set out in a Memorandum of Understanding between the state, Port of Seattle and the Northwest CruiseShip Association actually aren’t following all those rules, instead legally dumping waste in Canadian waters between the two states.

“The maritime business is sort of like the last under-regulated bastion of the corporate world. Because it falls between the borders of the world, it’s been hard to figure out how to get our arms around it,” said Fred Felleman, an environmental consultant specializing in the maritime realm and the northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group concerned with pollution from cruise ships.

Environmentalists criticize Washington for not having teeth behind its clean cruising rules, and even state regulators wish the rules weren’t largely voluntary.

“Ecology would prefer something that is a more enforceable mechanism because violations of the (voluntary agreement) are not enforceable themselves,” said Amy Jankowiak, who oversees the cruise ship water quality program for the Washington Department of Ecology.

In addition to the simple acts of eating, drinking, doing laundry and showering for a week aboard a cruise ship, and the massive amounts of wastewater, sewage, food waste and garbage that produces, there’s the waste generated by the luxury factor. Passengers on Alaska-bound cruises from Washington have their teeth whitened, their acne treated, and enjoy detox body wraps. Massages and acupuncture are available, along with walks in a spectacular garden.

The cruise ship industry is keenly aware the need for a greener image. In response, the industry promotes recycling efforts, and encourages burning cleaner fuels and boosting the efficiency of sewage and graywater treatment systems.

“They always talk about water conservation, but I think this is really the first time I’ve heard about recycling,” said Brian Burk, a Florida resident who has gone on five previous cruises.

The Port of Seattle now offers shore hook ups that allow ships to connect to power while in port, curbing air pollution from running engines. John Hansen, president of the Northwest CruiseShip Association, said with these efforts, the effects of what pollution remains from cruise ships are likely not at issue.

Passengers on the Carnival Spirit said the ship’s crew put heavy emphasis on reuse.

“One thing I noticed was that (the ship) didn’t have any paper towels,” said Nora Sheetz, a California resident. “No disposable cups either. It seamed like [the crew] was reusing everything.”

But experts like Felleman say discharges from cruise ships pose particular threat to closed environments like the Puget Sound, where a lack of circulation can allow nutrients to mix with pollution from land, producing algae. A 2004 letter from Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Carol Bernthal pointing to problems like nutrient accumulation across the big eddy on the outer edge of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and algal blooms on the open sea indicates that even bigger water has its limits. Cruise ship discharges – even from the best water quality treatment systems – are high in ammonia, bacteria and some pollutants, in part due to waste from their low-flush toilets, a congressional report shows.

And water, unlike land, doesn’t observe strict borders. Discharges in one territory’s waters can and do affect marine life and ocean health in another’s.

Crazy quilt of rules

While federal law says sewage treatment facilities on cruise ships must only meet standards for marine sanitation devices laid out by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1976, Washington and Alaska require participating cruise ships to meet stringent water quality standards, which call for higher quality sewage treatment than typically available on land in order to discharge. They also require that graywater – water from sinks, showers, laundry, dishwashing and swimming pools – be treated to the highest possible standard. Untreated sewage sludge discharge is banned in both states’ waters.

Rather than meet the difficult standards for discharging waste in Washington’s waters, most ships don’t apply and simply discharge in Canadian waters. Only Norwegian Cruise Line’s two ships applied for and met the Washington standards this year, with 10 other ships on the circuit opting to meet Canada’s lesser standards.

Canadian rules set no standards for graywater. Canadian inspectors also don’t test waste discharged from cruise ships for pollutants like inspectors in Alaska and Washington do.

About half the cruise ships that visit Alaska choose to discharge only outside of Alaska water because either their advanced wastewater systems aren’t operational, or they want to avoid the sampling requirements, extra paperwork or potential fines for violations of the tougher rules adopted in 2000 and recently updated, said Ed White of Alaska’s enforcement program.

InvestigateWest discovered that six of the 12 ships that homeport in Seattle did not apply for discharge permits in Alaska this year, leaving those ships also to dump exclusively in Canada and allowing potential problems to go unnoticed.

In addition, Washington state’s voluntary agreement doesn’t apply to ships that aren’t members of the Northwest Cruise Ship Association, an omission that last year allowed two large ships to operate without oversight in Washington waters.

New oversight of cruise ships proposed

Federal legislation, sponsored by Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott  and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, whose state borders the Great Lakes cruising Mecca, aims to amend the Clean Water Act to prohibit  cruise ship discharge within 12 miles of the coast and set new standards on discharges within 200 miles of the coast.

“Most people think the ocean can absorb anything,” he said. “Nobody is totally to blame. But cruise ships play an important role.”

InvestigateWest is a non-profit investigative news organization based in Seattle. Find out more at and learn how you can make a difference. Edmonds resident Rita Hibbard serves as InvestigateWest’s executive director.

InvestigateWest reporter Katie Farden contributed to this report.

See related article: Looking to Cruise — an environmental report card on cruise lines — here.

  1. I krecently read your article regtarding Cruise Ship Sewage. We are in the business of manufacturing MArine Sanitaton Devices (MSD’s). I see you have been mis-quoted on the amounts of sewage a Cruise Ship discharges.

    The USCG states the average person produces 80 gallons per day of black and grey water. We are required to size our system by that number if black and grey ids to be processed.

    The USCG also state the average person produces 20 gallons of black water only if the grey water (laundry, showers, etc.) is discharged directly into the sea. However, many ships combine the black with the grey which designates it as all Black Water.

    Each number above mulitiplied by your 2,124 passengers far exceed your 21,000 gallons per day. The cruise ships are either magically disposing of their sewage or they only carry passengers that are unique to the biological standards. If this is the case, I would really appreciate it if the USCG would change their standards and allow us to make the systems smaller.

  2. While there may be a threat of discharges to closed environments, for the Canadian sector of the cruise ship track Seattle-Alaska, the environment is not closed. Until and unless there is more evidence that the actual impact of cruise-ship discharge on the marine environment warrants stiffer regulations, best not to try to hobble an economic sector that is creating jobs in Canada as well as in the US. Many rules appear to use the facile “end-of-pipe” approach, and don’t seem to examine the discharge impact on the environment. If there is little actual negative impact of the discharge on the environment, why seek to cripple the cruise ship sector?

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