Cruise Pollution in Alaska

September 20, 2000

Last week, Alaska Governor Tony Knowles held a press conference in Juneau to express his “shock” at high levels of cruise ship pollution, particularly in the Inside Passage. Preliminary results of a study showed that 36 samples of treated sewage taken from 12 ships this summer exceeded federal standards for fecal coliform bacteria. In addition, more than 70 percent of gray water samples (gray water is the untreated waste stream from sinks and showers in your cabin as well as in the ship’s kitchens) exceeded standards. “For an industry that depends on and markets Alaska’s pristine beauty,” Knowles said, “this is not only unacceptable, it's a disgrace.”
Believe it or not, it is legal -- within certain parameters -- for cruise lines to dump waste in Alaska’s Inside Passage, extending from Ketchikan to Haines (Glacier Bay is an exception because it’s protected by the National Park Service). The major rules cruise ships must abide by include not dumping untreated raw sewage within three miles of land or in what's called “doughnut holes” -- shallow-bottomed areas off fjords and islands.
At the press conference, the US Coast Guard named Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as lines whose ships have tested for higher-than-allowed pollution. Interestingly, the latter two cruise lines have been in hot water here before. In 1998 Holland America was fined $2 million for discharging oily waste. Last year, Royal Caribbean paid $6.5 million (out of a total fine of $18 million) to Alaska after federal investigators discovered a conspiracy to save money by dumping waste in the ocean.
The cruise industry's response to this latest pollution controversy? Wait until the season ends. So far, says John Hansen, president of the North West Cruise Ship Association, which represents the industry, “the data is only a portion of the test results.”