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On-shore power reducing the impacts of cruise ships on the Sound, but is it enough? - Sound News

On-shore power reducing the impacts of cruise ships on the Sound, but is it enough?

By Sound News reporter Christina Madden

Boastful statements of lavish cruises and breathtaking sights often influence people to venture aboard a cruise ship.  Princess Cruises states “standing at the edge of a rainbow field of wildflowers, you admire nature’s quiet and epic majesty. Then, something stirs — a rustling in the brush as a huge moose rises from rest and wanders off. A moment like this could only happen in Alaska. Welcome to the Great Land.”  The cruise line encourages the appreciation of nature and wildlife.  Although passengers will have the opportunity to view spectacular scenes, their “floating hotel” is directly damaging the waterways, air quality and the surrounding sea-life.

In Seattle, the cruise ship industry is growing.  A new terminal opens at the end of April.  The terminal opening and the expected increase in cruise ship traffic could mean more environmental risks in Puget Sound.

The new terminal, Terminal 91 will allow ships that are in port to shut off their diesel engines because of on-shore power facilities.  This will cut down on cruise ship pollution.  However, this is not the only concern about the ships.  This controversy, as well as the debate of where ships can dump their sewage, arises with increased ship travel on our waters.

Aerial view of new Terminal 91 set to open in April.  Photo courtesy of Port of Seattle.

Aerial view of new Terminal 91 set to open in April. Photo courtesy of Port of Seattle.

The Department of Ecology recently signed a memorandum stating that ships that buy new treatment technology must discharge the clean, said to be drinkable water one mile from shore, said Chris Wilke, Pollution Prevention Director for the Puget Sound Keeper Alliance.  The sludge or excess solid waste must be discharged 12 nautical miles from shore or incinerated, while the ship is traveling at 6 knots or faster.

Among the first to use these new treatment technologies was Holland America, who uses a “cascade bilge-water treatment system.”  In this system water from the engine maintenance runoff and condensation collected in the ship’s bilge is treated by two separate systems before being discharged into the waterways explained Erik Elvejord, Director of Public Relations for Holland America.  Holland America ships are equipped with state of the art waste water purification systems that treat black water: the water from toilets, and drains and sinks from the infirmary.  There are filters within the system and disinfecting steps that properly treat both black water and grey water, which is shower and sink water, before being discharged into the Sound.  The result of these filters is water that fits most municipal treatment systems and most communities’ drinking water standards.  Elvejord said he has drunk the water and experienced no negative consequences.  Holland America can now discharge 24/7 said Elvejord, due to their advanced water treatment systems.

Environmentalists argue discharge location is crucial.  There is a “substantial volume” of sewage in the Sound from cruise ships said Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth.  He explained that ships discharge at Pier 66, which creates the sewage to be trapped in Puget Sound.  It is hard for the sewage to escape the Sound because of the few exits to the Pacific.  Felleman would like ships to discharge after Port Townsend, allowing the sewage to have an easier escape route to the ocean.

Wilke explained that although the Department of Ecology signed a memorandum of where discharge can take place, there is no monitoring.  He said that sewage treatment facilities, such as open dumps that are on-shore are monitored and cruise ships tend to avoid this regulation.

Shellfish beds are also part of the controversy about where cruise lines can dump their sludge.  In May of 2008 shellfish bed protection was added to a cruise ship environmental agreement.  Under these new regulations cruise lines “will not discharge treated wastewater within a half a mile of commercial or tribal shellfish beds.”  These terms also stated that by the 2009 cruise season ships will have monitors on their wastewater disinfection systems to detect any malfunctions and immediately stop discharging if standards aren’t met.

Environmentalists are concerned with the discharge affecting the shellfish beds, even if discharge is further than half a mile away.  Felleman discussed the common problem of the Noro Virus, also know as the Norwalk Virus on cruise ships and its effect on these beds.  The University of Washington studied potential risks from virus contamination associated with cruise ship’s waste water discharge to shellfish beds.  According to the study, as long as advanced wastewater treatment systems are functioning well, the concern for viral illness is low.  However, there could be potentially unacceptable virus levels in the water over shellfish beds, if disinfection standards are not met.  The report also stated that shellfish beds that are closest to the path of cruise ships and used by local Indian tribes was studied by a risk analysis.  The findings were that the rates are higher than for the general population, meaning more virus contamination in shellfish beds that are in the path of cruise lines.

Felleman said there was a “contact issue” with cruise ships because they discharge at the surface, which is where whales breathe, birds drink, fish swim and other creatures live.  Along with the “contact issue” is the “wet test.”  This “wet test” is used on ships that have been approved for continuous treated discharge.  Felleman said that King County regularly passed this test with zero dilution, while cruise ships results show concentrated of ammonia, a byproduct of urine and feces.  This solution carries bacteria and viruses, which is a problem for whales.

Cruise lines are advancing their efforts to protect their environment by installing new technology that reduces carbon dioxide emissions.  Terminal 91 will be the first dual-powered on-shore power facility in North America, according to Peter McGraw, Seaport Real-Estate Media Officer for the Port of Seattle.  In 2006, Holland America averaged 95.2 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per call without shore power.  However, with shore power, these emissions were reduced to 8.2 tons per call.

Plug-in cable on board Holland America cruise ship.  Photo by Don Wilson

Plug-in cable on board Holland America cruise ship. Photo by Don Wilson.

Reduced pollution can be accounted for because when in port, emissions from the ship can be eliminated thanks to the shore power, according to the Port of Seattle.  Lighting, pumps, ventilation, and refrigerators are a few of cruise ships major power users that can  take advantage of the new technology.

Not all cruise ships will plug-in at Terminal 91.  The requirement is that the ships either use low sulfur fuels or plug-in.  Royal Caribbean decided to leave Pier 66, the common dock for cruises, and move over to Terminal 91 for the 2009 season, said Felleman.  However, Royal Caribbean does not have plug in capabilities, and will have to use low sulfur fuels.

Ships in the Sound today are “massive energy hogs,” said Felleman.  He explained that they have six small engines.  Felleman has followed cruise ships out of Pier 66 to see their engine use.  For slow speeds one to two engines are used.  Three engines are turned on by the time Elliott Marina is reached and four engines are in use at Golden Gardens.  The more engines in use, the more pollution produced.

Originally, the cruise lines wanted to use the “near drinkable water” to wash their sheets and towels said Felleman.  Once experiments were done the sheets were turned grey.  Holland America spokesman Elvejord, had not heard of this circumstance.  He mentioned using the water as deck and side wash, but “keep[ing] it out of things a guest contacts closely.”  If guests are being protected from this water, maybe wildlife and the Sound should have more protection too.

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  1. There’s obviously some confusion about what the voluntary MOU between the Port, Ecology and the NW Cruise Ship Association calls for. Ships that are approved for continuous discharge can discharge anywhere n the Sound, even while they’re at dock, except when within a 1/2 mile of shellfish beds. This purported protection of shellfish beds requires little change in the vessel’s operation for the shipping lanes keep them that far anyway. They also have to notify Ecology when there’s a malfunction of the UV disinfection, but they only have to report to the CDC when there is an oubreak of over 10o people suffering symptoms of norovirus. Before being symptomatic, a single person can shed millions of virus.

  2. excellent article, Christina!

  3. I really enjoy reading your articles and getting the information about both our industry and environment.