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To keep waters pristine, punish the polluters

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2002

In 1993, Tampa's now-defunct Regency Cruises was caught and later fined $250,000 for dumping dozens of garbage-filled plastic bags into the Gulf of Mexico about 36 miles off St. Pete Beach and, separately, 29 miles off Bradenton.

In 1993, Tampa's now-defunct Regency Cruises was caught and later fined $250,000 for dumping dozens of garbage-filled plastic bags into the Gulf of Mexico about 36 miles off St. Pete Beach and, separately, 29 miles off Bradenton.

In the late 1990s, Miami's Royal Caribbean Cruises paid $27-million in fines and penalties to settle ocean-dumping complaints in Florida, California, Alaska, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Now comes Miami's Carnival Corp., the world's biggest cruise company with 43 pleasure vessels, which last month pleaded guilty to six felony counts and agreed to pay $18-million in fines and restitution.

The charge? Carnival lied by filing false statements with the Coast Guard on oily discharges from a half-dozen Carnival cruise ships, including the Paradise, Tropicale and (sailing from the Port of Tampa) Sensation. Aboard Carnival ships, on-board engineers went so far as to illegally override sensors meant to prevent dumping of oily wastewater.

What's wrong with this picture? Despite growing federal efforts to crack down on cruise ships' old maritime habits of dumping garbage and discharging waste in U.S. and international waters, improvement in the industry's behavior is pathetically slow.

Why care? Because Florida is home, and its reputation is tied, to three of the four largest cruise lines in North America. Because Florida's cruise industry, buoyed by the public's ongoing fears of flying since Sept. 11, is enjoying record business. Because more and more cruise ships are prowling Florida's sensitive waters and ports.

Because the cruise business increased its embarkations from North American ports by 50 percent in the 1990s. Because more cruises are planned along North American shores as a warier population avoids the Mediterranean and more exotic cruise destinations.

Because increasing industry competition and the launching of new ships will add pricing pressures and push vessel owners to find new ways to cut costs. Because cruise ships, like efficiency-driven airlines with their planes, try to move passengers off and on a ship as quickly as possible to minimize downtime that doesn't generate revenues.

Cruise ship operators are still too tempted to skip the costly steps required to follow tough environmental laws. Especially when it's so hard to police and enforce antidumping rules at sea in such a booming industry.

In a typical one-week voyage, the average-size cruise ship produces 8 tons of trash; 210,000 gallons of sewage; 25,000 gallons of oil-contaminated water; and a million gallons of "gray water" from sinks, showers, galleys and laundry facilities.

Cruise ships must pay big bucks in ports, or at sea with expensive pollution filters, to get rid of all this waste legitimately. And cruise ship captains often are awarded incentives to find ways to lower operating expenses. That's one reason why it's been a favorite shortcut for cruise ships to dump their gray water and even sewage far from land at night when the chances of detection from the occasional Coast Guard boat or plane are minimal.

Not that the industry can't be persuaded to stop thumbing its nose at environmental rules. For those old enough to remember, the sides of the nation's highways in the early 1960s routinely were littered with trash. Lots of it. People thought little about tossing cups, bottles, paper and worse from car windows without a pang of guilt. But now, after years of public education and better litter enforcement, roadways are cleaner (if not yet pristine).

Cruise ship owners can be influenced in the same way. Fining them serious sums of money is a start.

The bad news is that Carnival did not seem to learn any lessons from the industry's past mistakes. The company's guilty plea in April is for illegal actions that seem remarkably similar to those that got Royal Caribbean in deep trouble several years earlier. Let's compare the two:

CARNIVAL: Not charged with illegal dumping, but for lying about it.

ROYAL: Not charged with illegal dumping, but for lying about it.

CARNIVAL: Pleaded guilty that six Florida-based cruise ships repeatedly dumped waste into the sea between July 1998 and January 2001.

ROYAL: Pleaded guilty to fleetwide conspiracy and obstruction of justice that its ships saved millions of dollars by dumping oily waste into the ocean in the mid-1990s.

CARNIVAL: Ships' staffs would "fool" an on-board alarm, called the oil content meter, that warns when water containing too much oil enters the discharge system. By flushing clean water past the sensor, a "low" reading allowed ship to discharge oily water undetected.

ROYAL: Ships rigged pipes to bypass antipollution equipment. On Royal's Sovereign of the Seas, engineers on a voyage from San Juan to Miami were ordered to cut up pipes connected to an antipollution device and drop them in a dumpster. Similar steps occurred on other Royal Caribbean ships.

CARNIVAL: Ships have to keep "oil record books" of oily waste disposal and allow inspections. When engineers fooled ship sensors to discharge oily bilge waste, they falsified records.

ROYAL: Ship engineers admitted that oil record books were falsified so routinely that they were known as eventyrbok, which means "fairy tale book" in Norwegian.

Even as the cruise industry expands in search of untapped territory along other parts of the U.S. coast, new conflicts emerge.

In March 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency cited six cruise companies, including three based in Florida, for fouling the Alaskan air in Juneau, Seward and Glacier Bay National Park. The EPA recently proposed the first federal limits on air pollution from large ocean-going ships.

Shortly after Carnival pleaded guilty in April, the cruise giant, Royal Caribbean and other ship operators were sued by environmental groups that claim the companies improperly dump water along California's coast.

The groups allege that cruise ships in foreign ports take on ballast water, which is pumped into the bottom of a ship to keep it balanced at sea, then jettison it elsewhere. That water can contain exotic organisms that pose a threat to native flora and fauna.

In Alaska last summer, six cruise companies settled state charges concerning excessive smokestack emissions in the port of Juneau. They paid fines ranging from $27,500 to $165,000.

Will any of these so-called penalties and policing actions jolt big cruise ship operators to start acting more responsibly?

Companies such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean are cooperative when confronted by investigators. Company executives say the right things and make promises to reform. Carnival even pledged to hire environmental watchdogs for all its ships and facilities and to put in place senior executives to ensure high environmental-safety practices.

But the explosive growth of new and larger cruise ships along U.S. coastlines will make it harder than ever for the overtaxed Coast Guard (already redirected to fight potential terrorism) to detect environmental shortcuts. At the least, fines need to be hefty enough to make companies think twice.

Carnival's $18-million penalty last month isn't chicken feed, but it won't slow down a corporation with nearly $1-billion in quarterly sales and a market value topping $19-billion. To cruise operators of that size, environmental fines often are viewed as little more than a "cost of doing business." Instead, fines need to become serious bottom-line reminders to operate with more respect for the water they sail upon.

Otherwise, all of this becomes just another eventyrbok.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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