Cruising Is Bruising

As the Port seeks more cruise ships, critics decry inconsistent environmental regs.

When it comes to cruise ships, the Seattle Port Commission is riding its own version of the Love Boat. The commissioners recently voted unanimously to build a new cruise-ship terminal, which was supposed to be temporary but might well be permanent, on Pier 30 across the SoDo tracks from the Starbucks headquarters. This terminal will require more construction and cost much more than the one previously planned at Piers 90 and 91 at the base of Queen Anne and Magnolia. It's the main factor in a 46 percent increase in the Port of Seattle's property-tax levy next year, which will add nearly $18 to the yearly taxes on a $250,000 house. But Pier 30 offers one decisive advantage: Unlike Pier 90, it won't require an environmental review that would delay and perhaps derail the terminal. And timing and environmental impact are both sensitive issues for the cruise business these days.

Other tourism sectors have shrunk post-9/11. So has the cargo traffic that's been the Port's stock in trade for more than a century; even as its Aviation Division grows slightly, its Seaport Division will eliminate nearly half its 384 full-time-equivalent positions from next year's budget. Most of those positions were in the now-closed warehouse at Pier 90. But as baby boomers age, as clever marketing and cheaper pricing make vacationing on big ships seem hipper, and as terrorism jitters scare vacationers away from flying and foreign resorts, the $14 billion cruise business is booming. And the ships that cruise the Inland Passage to Alaska—about as far from Yemen and Iraq as you can get and still get a drink with an umbrella in it—seem especially attractive.

So how could you not love a cruise business that, by the Port's count, spreads $700,000 around town with each vessel call? Easy, replies a far-flung chorus of critics who denounce the industry for spilling and dumping illegal waste from Juneau to Jamaica. One local activist hoped to use the permitting of the new terminal as a lever to make the Port crack down on polluting cruise ships. Though it's lately been reaching out to the environmental community and trumpeting its green good works, the Port remains singularly unmoved.

WITH UP TO 5,000 passengers, cruise ships are small cities afloat, each one generating a city's worth of sewage and wash water, not to mention medical waste and toxic dry cleaning and (especially with all the souvenir snapshooting) photographic chemicals. The multinational cruise firms and their foreign-flagged vessels have left a dismal trail of spills, marked by impressive-sounding fines. From 1998 through 2000, Royal Caribbean Cruises got hit for more than $30 million for repeatedly discharging oil, bilge water, and wastewater into the seas (including the Inside Passage) and falsifying records. Last April, the biggest cruise company, Carnival, pleaded guilty to six felony counts of falsifying records to cover up oil discharges on six ships off Florida from 1996 to 2001; its fine was $18 million. In September, a fired Carnival vice president filed a whistle-blower suit alleging a host of safety and environmental transgressions, including dumping toxics and disabling pollution controls, on ships deployed by Carnival and various subsidiaries—among them Seattle-based Holland America. An Alaska grand jury is investigating the discharge of an estimated 40,000 gallons of wastewater and sewage by Holland America's Ryndam off Juneau last August; Holland America originally put the spill at just 250 gallons.

Nevertheless, national and Northwest cruise-industry associations insist that these are past sins and the companies have cleaned up their acts. For Holland America, at least, that seems to be the case, Ryndam aside: Alaskan environmental officials credit the company with, as one told the Juneau Empire, a "pretty miraculous," state-of-the-art waste-treatment retrofit. "And," she added, "they did it in 2000, before we even had a law" requiring such treatment.

NEVERTHELESS, AN Alaska law that took effect last January seems to be the main reason Alaska cruisers have polluted less this year—at least while they're in Alaskan waters. Outraged Alaskan lawmakers imposed tough new inspection standards for onboard waste and banned dumping untreated effluent. Trouble is, their measures only apply in Alaskan waters. Ships that don't have—or don't want to go to the expense of using—up-to-date treatment equipment can just wait until they get outside Alaskan waters, where looser international standards prevail and inspection is less likely.

The Vancouver, B.C.-based Oceans Blue Foundation lambastes "semi- regulatory" patchwork and lax Canadian rules that lag behind not just Alaskan but U.S. standards, urging all Northwest jurisdictions to join in coordinated regulation and establish a certification system for all cruise ships plying their waters. Taking a page from Oceans Blue, Fred Felleman of Ocean Advocates urges the Port of Seattle to require that ships docking here follow the stricter Alaskan standards out on the water.

But Seattle Port officials have steadfastly maintained that they are only responsible for the cruise operators' behavior while ships are docked. "I'm not reaching to find new mandates," says Port Commissioner Paige Miller. "We don't have the money or the staff to go out on the water and find out what people are doing there." That's the job of the U.S. Coast Guard—an agency that Felleman and other critics claim is too closely tied, via a long revolving-door tradition, to the industries it regulates. (Two former Coast Guard port captains in Seattle are now Holland America executives overseeing safety and environmental programs.)

Furthermore, Port spokesperson Mick Schultz warns, "If we did regulate [cruise companies] like Alaska, they wouldn't come here." Alaska is the lines' "destination," he explains; they have to go there, but they can always switch to Vancouver or some other home port if Seattle bears down on them.

BUT SEATTLE MIGHT have more clout with the companies than it chooses to exercise. It enjoys a conspicuous advantage in competing for Alaska cruise passengers who fly into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which has many more U.S. connections than Vancouver. Those passengers have been schlepped on buses to Vancouver. But they'd much rather ride a quick limo to SoDo. John Hansen, president of the Vancouver-based Northwest Cruiseship Association, doesn't foresee any such port jumping if, say, Seattle cracks down: "I don't think there'd be any impact on where the ships go. We really support high standards wherever they are." Hansen contends that the higher Alaska standards are coming to prevail de facto all along the coast.

Then why not make them official, to ensure against the sort of rule dodging and racing for the bottom that Schultz predicts? "By working cooperatively, we won't have to compromise on safety," argues Oceans Blue's senior research director, Tracy London, who wrote a critical report on the cruise industry. "If the cruise communities in Seattle and Vancouver don't cooperate, both will lose."

Seattle Port Commissioner Lawrence Malloy says he's "willing to look at regional coordination" in cruise-ship regulation. "It would just give us a level playing field." Malloy, an engineer who worked in strategic planning at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been the commissioner most sympathetic to Felleman's plea for more cruise-ship regulation. He suggests that, even if the Port lacks the authority to regulate how and what the ships dump once they cast off, it "could say in its lease contracts that only newer [and presumably cleaner] ships can dock here." But even Malloy doesn't see cruise ships as a priority; he sees a much bigger "payoff" in cracking down on air pollution from ships' smokestacks. And he sees a "huge environmental component to Alaska cruises," because they encourage people to care about the marine ecosystem.

Nevertheless, Felleman had hoped to use the Port's quest for a new cruise terminal to force it to do more to prevent spilling and dumping. He might even have helped prompt the switch from Pier 90 to Pier 30 by lobbying last summer to make the Port produce an environmental impact statement for Pier 90.

Now, because it doesn't have to do any underwater renovation at Pier 30 (as it would have at Pier 90), the Port needn't get a shoreline permit or conduct an environmental review there. But because it must spend $11.5 million more to build a new terminal at Pier 30 (instead of renovating one at Pier 90), it will keep the terminal there much longer—perhaps forever. "Before, it was just interim," laments Felleman. "So any mitigation we didn't get was no big deal. We'd get it later with a permanent one. Now it's permanent, and we're getting less environmental review."

Be careful what you wish for. It's a lesson that Port boosters who clamor for more cruise ships might also keep in mind.

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