Cruise inspections on rise
By Michele Kayal
Advertiser Staff Writer
The U.S. Coast Guard is stepping up inspections of cruise vessels in Hawai'i amid growing concern that the industry's runaway growth may have already begun encroaching on the state's fragile environment.
In the past nine months, the Coast Guard has boarded nearly half of the 35 cruise ships that have come to Honolulu to ensure their waste facilities meet federal requirements, said Capt. Gilbert Kanazawa, commanding officer of the local marine safety office.
The Coast Guard boarded only about 40 percent of the 21 ships that arrived between August and May of the previous cruise season.
"We want to ensure that as the cruise ships come here, we are protecting Hawai'i waters," Kanazawa said. "It doesn't mean we have the same problems they're running into (in other places), but it's prudent that we check."
In the next two years, port calls by international vessels in Hawai'i will more than double to 532 annually. At least five ships are expected to be permanently based in Hawai'i and making weekly interisland cruises by 2004, up from only two today. Meanwhile, 26 international ships including at least one under investigation elsewhere are expected to call in Honolulu this year.
But enforcing pollution and other regulations on this booming industry is complicated at best, authorities say, because no one agency appears clear on what the laws are, how they apply or how they are to be monitored.
Untreated waste an issue
A group of about 20 state officials has begun trying to determine what the regulations require and whether current laws which appear to allow the untreated effluent from cruise ships' toilets, urinals and other facilities to be released in the channels that separate Hawai'i's islands are strict enough.
"While there are federal regulations about where a ship can pump its wastewater into the ocean, enforcing those regulations is a concern," said Gary Gill, Hawai'i's deputy director for environmental health, whose department oversees some of the clean water laws. "The appropriateness of those regulations is a second concern."
Cruise line representatives say some of their own policies are tougher than either state or federal laws, and that they are in the process of spending millions of dollars to upgrade their sewage treatment systems.
Kanazawa and officials from the state's departments of harbors, health, and land and natural resources will meet today, Kanazawa said, to begin untangling the regulations that apply here and what appears to be overlapping authority by the various agencies.
"We probably don't understand each others' regulations real clear," Kanazawa said.
About two dozen department heads from the Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health, the University of Hawai'i, the attorney general's office, and others involved in water and cruise ship policy, launched a larger discussion group in March to wrestle with similar issues, plus infrastructure and other concerns.
The group plans to meet again in June and to invite representatives of the cruise industry, said Chris Chung, manager of Hawai'i's Coastal Zone Management Program, which is heading the effort.
'Gray water' a gray area
Federal regulations allow the discharge of raw sewage untreated human and other waste starting three miles from shore, except in Alaskan waters.
Treated sewage can be discharged anywhere, again, with special requirements in Alaska. "Gray water" the soapy stuff from sinks, showers and kitchens is not addressed by federal regulations.
The Alaska restrictions came into effect after tests last summer showed that cruise ship wastewater discharged into the coastal areas contained bacterial levels up to 50,000 times greater than what federal regulations allowed. Of 80 water samples taken from cruise ship storage tanks, only one met the standards for suspended solids and fecal colliform, a bacteria found in human waste.
A Hawai'i state law appears to protect the waters within three miles of the coast, forbidding disposal of any waste treated, untreated, or gray water within that distance. But three miles is not very far, environmentalists and some state officials said.
"That's right smack between Lana'i and Lahaina," Gill said. "And in a whale sanctuary, for that matter."
There is no way to know whether the cruise lines are expelling raw sewage between the islands. Because it is legal to do so, no agency keeps track of it.
The Coast Guard's inspectors determine whether each ship has the required waste management systems on board and whether they are being operated properly, Kanazawa said. But they do not test the quality of the effluent. Kanazawa said the increased inspections have not revealed any violations.
Kanazawa said he could not remember the last time the Coast Guard detained a cruise ship for violations, and Gill said the last incident he can think of was more than 10 years ago.
Cruise industry responds
The International Council of Cruise Lines, which represents the major companies in the $15.5 billion industry, says its members adhere to a stricter standard than the federal law.
The Council is about to adopt an international operations standard that says its members will not discharge gray water or sewage of any kind until a ship is four miles from shore and under way at a speed of six knots, said Council executive vice president Ted Thompson.
But most of the group's members hold their waste until they are 12 miles out to sea anyway, Thompson said.
"Raw sewage could be discharged out there," he said, "but our members don't do it to my knowledge."
Thompson added that about a dozen of the industry's ships at lines including Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Carnival have installed advanced sewage treatment systems that produce "essentially pure water." The industry has spent several million dollars so far, he said, and will continue installing the new systems.
The policy of the North West Cruiseship Association, which represents some of the same lines, says no discharges within 10 miles of port.
Both policies put the lines well within Hawai'i regulations. But some environmentalists urge authorities to be wary and to do their own investigations.
"They claim that they have these voluntary corporate policies which are stronger than federal or state laws, but they claimed that for California," said Kira Schmidt, director of the cruise-ship campaign at the San Francisco-based environmental group Bluewater Network.
Bluewater Network supported a recent measure in California that requires the cruise lines to file quarterly reports on any discharges they make in state waters. The first set of reports, filed last month, showed that one line discharged 80 tons of gray water during each of its twice-weekly visits to San Pedro.
"The cruise lines said all along, 'Even though we're allowed to discharge treated sewage into state waters, we don't do that.' That's what the cruise lines said," she said. "So much for voluntary corporate policy."
As for enforcing the state law that prohibits discharges within three miles of Hawai'i's coast, Gill said state officials don't know about violations unless someone tells them, or if it winds up on the beach. "The only way we would know is if somebody reported it, or if we found evidence washing ashore," he said.
Norwegian Cruise Line, which will permanently base its ship the Star in Hawai'i this December, became the first company the Coast Guard has acted against under the new Alaska laws.
The Coast Guard is pursuing civil penalties of up to $25,000 per day against Norwegian, alleging that it dumped sewage that did not meet the required cleanliness standards in Alaska waters.
The ship, Norwegian's Sky, will call in Hawai'i six times this year. Norwegian has said the discharge was accidental, and that it "deeply regrets" the incident.