On World Oceans Day fight against cruise ship pollution on Canada’s coast
One good thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic was cruise ships were forced to hit pause along the West Coast of Canada. This is significant because during cruise season 100,000 tourists a month travel up and down the coast of British Columbia.
Anna Barford, Canada Shipping Campaign for Stand.Earth (Stand), told rabble in a recent interview that she wanted to know what this actually means in terms of the ocean’s ecosystem.
Fortunately, it didn’t take much digging to reveal 32 billion litres of raw sewage and toxic waste water are dumped along the B.C. coast every time there’s a cruise season like 2019 which is because Canada has no laws to stop dirty waste dumping.
The three major waste streams involved in cruise ship dumping include raw sewage, greywater and scrubber wash water.
Raw sewage is what gets flushed down the toilet. Cruise ships along the B.C. coast generate enough to fill 365 Olympic swimming pools each year according to Stand.Earth.
They also dump upwards of 1.5 billion litres of greywater annually — enough to fill 600 Olympic swimming pools. Greywater is the accumulated water from pools, showers, kitchens and laundry facilities. When released into the ocean, greywater creates dead zones for marine life including fish who suffocate when their gills become coated with the oil and grease it contains.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that greywater from cruise ships was more contaminated, more concentrated and had more pathogens in it than raw sewage from municipal, land-based sources.
Scrubber wash water is the biggest polluter of the three. Scrubbers use seawater to ‘scrub’ sulfur from an engine’s exhaust in order to meet mandated lower sulfur emissions.
In essence, scrubbers cheat the system by allowing vessels to comply with sulfur fuel regulations employing post-combustion technology that turns air pollution into water pollution.
Protecting coastal donut holes
B.C. is in this interesting position sandwiched between Washington State and Alaska. Both of these states have put in place strong rules and strict measures against cruise ship dumping.
In fact, Alaska has stringent limits on pollution that specifically protect donut holes. In Alaska, all cruise ships can dump treated wastewater three miles from shore. Channels and internal seas with islands and inlets create situations where a hole or sliver of water, known as a donut hole, forms at the center of the three-mile limit from all surrounding shorelines. Alaska protects these areas from dumping.
Contrast that with the Great Bear Sea in B.C. which has a large donut hole rich in biodiversity, endangered species, and fisheries where the dumping rules don’t apply at all. Ships can just navigate to that donut hole and flush their tanks into the ecologically sensitive area.
Pre-pandemic, Alaska had the gold standard for enforcement. Ocean rangers, employed by the state, boarded cruise ships, took samples, and published reports. These reports provided information about the technology ships have in place, the failure rates of those technologies, and what the ships were dumping into the ocean.
Puget Sound along the northwest coast of Washington state is rich with shellfish and biodiversity. It’s also protected by a no-discharge zone. That means cruise ships loading up with passengers in Seattle need to hold their waste and raw sewage until they get to a jurisdiction that allows dumping.
According to Barford, “across the Canadian border in the Canadian half of the Salish Sea, that sewage can contain up to 250 fecal coliform units per 100 millilitres. To give some context, Alaska limits fecal coliform to 14 units per 100 millilitres. That’s 18 times more stringent.”
Grandfather clauses protecting polluters
For greywater, current rules grandfather in any cruise ships built before 2013. That covers most of the ships cruising the B.C. coast and means the rules don’t apply to those vessels.
Canadian protections are improving if only by small increments. For the 2022 cruise season, Transport Canada brought in voluntary measures that match Alaska’s fecal coliform limits for sewage and greywater. These voluntary measures are supposed to become regulations in 2023, but they don’t go far enough to safe guard marine protected areas.
“This is a step in the right direction. They’re [Transport Canada] acknowledging that cruise ships are a huge source of pollution,” says Barford. “However, they are not acknowledging the reality of cruise ships as actors by doing voluntary measures instead of ones that you would see be audited, or have observers on board, and they’re not protecting the ecosystem in the way that it needs to be protected.”
It’s virtually impossible for Canadian inspectors to board cruise ships to determine if they are breaking the rules when the industry is really only breaking voluntary measures.
Without designated no discharge zones, voluntary measures inadequately protect marine life and do nothing to prevent norovirus outbreaks like the B.C. coast is currently experiencing.
So far, every norovirus outbreak in shellfish has been tied to B.C. The provincial government numbers value the marine economy at over 20 billion dollars. That’s at risk if pollution prevention and no discharge zones aren’t legislated into law.
No discharge zones protect American coastline
In 2021, Stand released the report, Regulating the West Coast Cruise Industry: Canada at the low water mark, in partnership with West Coast Environmental Law.
The report highlighted the fact that California protects its entire coast line by enforcing no discharge zones. Marine sanctuaries are also completely safeguarded. Washington state has a no discharge zone in Puget Sound. Alaska has strong rules regulating sewage and greywater and covering donut holes.
“Turns out B.C. is unequivocally the toilet bowl of the West Coast,” said Barford. “Canada is very trusting of the industry despite the cruise industry being convicted multiple times in U.S. federal court for environmental dumping in places like Alaska among others. And, they’re breaking rules that Canada doesn’t even actually have.”
Voluntary measures also completely ignore scrubber wash water that accounts for 95 per cent of the pollution coming out of cruise ships. Scrubber wash water is acidic, laden with carcinogens and completely preventable.
Off the coast of California these pollution control devices cannot be used. Instead, ships must use lower sulphur fuel oil. That’s an easy fix B.C. could implement as well.
Cruises not vital to B.C. economy
Canada’s biggest and busiest port of call for cruise ships is the city of Victoria. Tourist traffic gave rise to the myth that cruise ships are a major player in the health of the local economy, but Barford says the numbers just don’t add up.
Only 12 per cent of Victoria’s visitors arrive by cruise ship. On average, they spend a mere two per cent of the tourism dollars generated in the area, so the economic benefit is minimal.
Tourists who stay more than 24 hours in Victoria are the real economic drivers of the robust tourist industry. For every job created by the cruise sector, 31 are created by stay over tourism.
In fact, a number of municipalities are concerned about the impact ocean dumping is having on over night and stay over tourism. They realize that their communities benefit from having a thriving ocean economy.
Cruise ships could afford to be eco-friendly
While treatment systems for ships are available, they tend to have failure rates of 90 per cent when not maintained properly. That would require an onboard observer taking samples and checking out the equipment in order to know how well the treatment system is functioning. Otherwise, raw sewage and greywater are being released under the guise of treatment.
Alaska made it mandatory to have an observer on board every cruise ship. Their wages are covered through a $4 berth fee. This increased jobs in the ocean economy while ensuring environmental protection.
Barford points out that cruise ships are incredibly profitable so they could also support pollution prevention by trucking their waste to the municipal site and by helping Victoria install a pump house.
A resolution about dumping from scrubbers is currently before the Union of B.C. Municipalities. In September, they will have a chance to vote on the resolution that has already been unanimously passed by the Lower Mainland Local Government’s Association.
“For too long, Transport Canada has been letting industry put profit ahead of community and pollution prevention,” said Barford. “And, Transport Canada needs to hear from community voices saying this is preventable. We don’t want this here. We have a thriving ocean economy and that’s what we need to protect. That means closing the toilet bowl.”
Stand created a petition calling on the Canadian government to stop the dumping of dirty waste and to get serious about protecting our oceans. They are very close to reaching their goal of 60,000 signatures. To add your name, click here.
Stand.Earth is a non-profit environmental organization working to create a world where respect for people and the environment comes first. Campaigns challenge destructive corporate and governmental practices, demand accountability, and create solutions that support people as well as the environment and climate.