Cruise Ship Blues

The multi-billion dollar cruise line business, plying international waters alongside different national jurisdictions, has been playing a hide and seek game for years. Hiding the dumping of harmful wastes and chemicals into marine environments and seeking all kinds of concessions and non-regulation by lobbying and federal regulators.

The media takes them over the coals from time to time when they are caught illegally dumping or in the rare instances when they are prosecuted for felonious behavior.

Public exposés, viral or bacterial epidemics causing these companies severe embarrassment and lawsuits, and occasional harrowing stories from mistreated crew members mostly from Third World countries, have pressed the industry to adopt improved waste treatment technologies and voluntary industry codes of more acceptable practices.

The rule of American law has still not caught up with them. Until, that is, the companies lost a fierce battle in Alaska last year over a Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative (CSBI) which Alaskans passed in August 2006.

No other state has embraced the cruise companies with an enforceable regime of accountability. Florida and Washington State, for example, have Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) which have no enforcement mechanism, despite recent findings by Washington state that the discharge point impact on shrimp and other marine life left zero survivors instead of the expected 80% (the so-called “wet tests”).

So, Alaska is leading the way. Gershon Cohen, who with labor union lawyer, Joseph Geldhof, led the victorious mobilization of voters, described the rationale this way:

“We want waste discharges from the cruise industry to meet all Alaska Water Quality Standards as required of every other discharger into Alaskan waters.

“We believe the cruise industry should pay corporate income taxes, from which they were exempted by the Legislature in 1998. We think the cruise industry should pay a percentage of their gambling profits to Alaska like every other gaming operator in the State.

“We need to have an independent marine engineer [the Ocean Ranger Program] aboard every ship to make sure they don’t dump untreated wastes into our waters or falsify logbooks—actions that have repeatedly brought them felony convictions in the last decade.”

The taxes are now being collected. And the Alaskan Department of Environmental Conservations, together with other agencies, are in the process of issuing the rules to implement the initiative after a public notice and comment period.

The Ocean Ranger Program is about to start to generate the deterrence and inspection programs that will be very useful to other lagging states considering similar legislation to “protect passengers, crew and residents at ports from improper sanitation, health and safety practices,” to quote the words from the CSBI.

Given the many thousands of passengers who have gotten sick from contaminated food or from noroviruses, other states need to end their endless indulgence of the cruise industry lobbyists. As for workers, some of the crew are unionized. But most of the laborers have few or no rights and have no organized representatives. Being offshore, U.S. labor laws do not apply to protect them.

With Alaska and Alaskan Native Organizations leading the way, can the other states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) be that far behind? That depends on the passengers, the more outspoken workers especially when they have quit, the detailed ship and cruise line-specific information coming from Alaska and a more inquiring media.

On March 17, 2000, Clinton’s EPA Administrator, Carol Browner, received a petition with detailed recommendations for regulatory action signed by leading Democratic members of the House and Senate, environmental groups, officials from the EPA itself, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Result: Nothing has been done under Clinton or under the Bush Government to address this remarkably detailed and documented petition.

The major interaction with the Bush government has been a huge rip-off by Carnival Cruise Lines which received, under a no-bid contract with FEMA, a $236 million contract for three of its ships to house homeless people, post-Katrina. For details see the website for Cong. Henry Waxman (D-CA) for letters and testimony regarding this debacle.

When reminded of its felony convictions for deliberate dumping, installing ‘magic pipes’ to facilitate a total bypass of treatment, bypassing the oil bilgewater separators, giving false information to the Coast Guard, the industry’s standard reply is ‘that was then and now conditions are better.’

Enforcement of the Alaskan law covering a million passengers plus crew every summer, together with a citizen’s lawsuit provision awarding portions of penalties to whistleblowers who provide information leading to convictions, will test that claim.

For more information and ways you can become involved in challenging this industry, see and Ross Klein’s two books—Cruise Ship Blue and Cruise Ship Squeeze. Another useful website is

For immediate information, you can telephone Gershon Cohen at (907) 766-3005. He answers his own phone!

RALPH NADER is the author of The 17 Traditions.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!