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State, cruise lines agree to waste plan

Critics say pact is 'toothless,' gives false sense of protection

By Paul Queary
Associated Press

OLYMPIA – The state Department of Ecology has negotiated a voluntary agreement with cruise ship lines aimed at keeping the massive ships from dumping wastewater in Washington's inland marine waters.

But the agreement has critics complaining that the ships face negligible penalties if they violate the deal.

The agreement between the state and the North West CruiseShip Association – an umbrella group that represents the three major lines that call in Seattle – bars all wastewater discharges in state waters except from vessels equipped with advanced treatment systems certified by the U.S. Coast Guard.

It also closes an area called a "doughnut hole" that, it can be argued, is subject to looser federal dumping requirements designed for the deep ocean because it's more than three miles from land.

"We were able to take some steps that will take us farther than federal law currently takes us," said Larry Altose, a spokesman for the Department of Ecology. "There is a doughnut hole in between the San Juan Islands, Port Townsend and Victoria."

Seattle has become an increasingly popular cruise ship port in recent years, with visits jumping from six in 1999 to about 140 this year. Regulating the waste produced by ships that can carry as many as 5,000 passengers and crew has been the subject of recent laws in Alaska and California, both busy cruise destinations.

The upcoming agreement – called a "memorandum of understanding" – helped derail a tougher discharge ban proposed by Democratic lawmakers earlier this year after the Norwegian Sun dumped 40 tons of human waste into the Strait of Juan de Fuca in May.

Cruise lines opposed the bill, and Ecology officials said it might disrupt a process that would provide protections this year.

"We hope to be able to have this thing in effect before the first cruise ship calls," Altose said.

John Hansen, president of the cruise association, praised the agreement, likening it to the restrictions imposed in.

"The companies are investing huge amounts of money in these upgraded wastewater systems," Hansen said. "The wastewater that comes out of these systems is technically very close to drinking water."

Critics, however, denounced the agreement as toothless. It's "worse than nothing because it provides a false sense of protection," said Fred Felleman of Ocean Advocates in Seattle. "The fact that there is no consequence to breaking this agreement makes it meaningless."

Among the agreement's provisions:

  • Ships could discharge in port with additional treatment protections, including enhanced disinfection, real-time monitoring and immediate cut-off capability.
  • Sewage sludge discharges would be restricted to waters more than 12 miles from shore, instead of the three miles called for in federal law. That effectively closes the "doughnut hole."
  • The ships agree not to dump untreated waste in state waters, which extend to the boundary with Canada and three miles off the outer coast.
  • The ships would be required to conduct regular testing and sampling, with results submitted to the state and made available to the public. State officials could board ships to inspect systems, observe sampling and take their own samples. The public has until April 6 to comment on the proposal.

In a one-week voyage, a ship generates about 1 million gallons of gray water, 210,000 gallons of sewage and 35,000 gallons of oil-contaminated water, according to the Bluewater Network, an environmental group in Seattle. Most of that waste – some treated, some not – goes into the water at some point.