Raw sewage contains disease pathogens and toxins, impairs the respiratory functions in water life, and causes algae blooms. And cruise ships are dumping it just off shore, possibly washing up on the beach near where your family is vacationing.

Nightmare fiction? Hardly.

Though most travelers don’t know about this practice, environmentalists tell Foxnews.com this kind of wastewater dumping is all too common for the cruise industry: Federal lawsuits have been filed against the cruise ship companies. The U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have cracked down on the firms. For years, legislators have tried to get a new bill passed which would reign in the hazardous practices. Indeed, one proposed by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) was introduced just days ago.

UPDATE: A representative of the Cruise Lines International Association responds to this report at the bottom of the story.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the cruise industry has grown at double the rate of the rest of the travel industry. The average cruise ship has the capacity for as many as 7,000 passengers and crew members; the boats are floating cities, with restaurants, hair salons, dry cleaners and entertainment venues.

During a typical week, EPA says, a cruise ship with 3,000 passengers can generate 200,000 gallons of waste and sewage and 1 million gallons of gray water from showers and drains.

As the vessels leave port and turn back out to sea, the ship’s engineers dump tons of raw human waste, as well as all of the gray water accumulated during the week-long cruise. That water pollution kills fish and other marine life, and creates a massive algae bloom, despoiling the pristine waters.

The cruise industry trade group, The Cruise Lines International Association, counters this harsh criticism, last week stating that it has been a “leader in the maritime industry’s effort to reduce its environmental footprint.” Members of the group include the big brand names of the cruise ship field, like Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, and Celebrity Cruises.

The trade group says ships of its member companies received an average sanitation score just above 97 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The minimum score required for sanitation safety and public health is 85. The industry also says it has done a lot for water conservation aboard its vessels.

Critics don’t think that’s enough, however. They claim the ships go out to sea, 12 miles beyond the U.S. shoreline (and beyond federal jurisdiction), and release the waste, threatening sea life and the public health of coastal communities.

“No one knows exactly what’s thrown overboard. Raw sewage contains a lot of disease pathogens and toxins,” says Dean Navjoks, a environmental policy expert with Yadkin Riverkeeper, Inc., a water advocacy group. “It impairs the respiratory functions in water life. It causes algae blooms. This has become a priority for the environmental community.”

A report released earlier this decade by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) determined that, from 1993 to 1998 alone, cruise ships were involved in 87 confirmed cases of discharges of wastes into U.S. waters, and have paid more than $30 million in fines to the government. The Department of Justice prosecuted Royal Caribbean in 1999, and the company pled guilty to a total of 21 felony counts in six U.S. jurisdictions, agreeing to pay a record $18 million in criminal fines.

Navjoks notes that the cruise industry more recently agreed with Alaskan authorities to reign in its water pollution footprint and install adequate sewage treatment facilities aboard all ships that made port in Alaska. The rules went into place in 2006 and serve as something of a role model for national efforts now, Navjoks adds.

Some experts think that there are other reasons that the cruise ship water pollution issue is now getting this level of high-profile attention. Environmental groups finally have “an administration and Congress that are amenable to this,” says Bruce Pasfield, a partner in Alston & Bird’s environmental and land use litigation practice group, in Washington D.C., and former prosecutor in the DOJ’s environmental crimes unit. “From what I can see, this kind of legislation has been tried, unsuccessfully, in a number of legislative sessions.”

The move could also been seen as part of the current administration’s economic policies, notes Joseph A. Morris, a former associate attorney general in the DOJ and Reagan White House lawyer. “Populism,” says Morris, point out that it's “easy to beat up on cruise-takers as rich, leisure-time-laden parasites.”

Morris also thinks this may be yet another veiled attack on senior citizens, “who make up such a huge proportion of American cruise takers.”

But others argue the technology to treat human waste at sea has grown cheaper in recent years, since so many cruise lines have already purchased it for their Alaska operations. The cost would be about $7 per passenger, and would, it is conceded, likely be passed along to passengers in the form of higher ticket prices.

“The industry should get credit for its good water conservation stewardship and the other good things they have done for the health of the passengers,” says Neesha Kulkarni, a legislative associate at environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth. “But you also have to look at their total environmental footprint.”


Eric Ruff, executive vice president for public policy and communications of the Cruise Lines International Association, has responded to this story with the following statement:

The Foxnews.com story entitled "Federal Agencies Raise Alarm About Cruise Sewage” omits key information and is flat wrong about the current state of environmental practices within our industry, particularly related to the discharge of black water or “sewage.” No black water is discharged into the ocean by CLIA members before it is treated.

Regulators have set requirements on effluent quality for every discharge from a ship in U.S. waters. CLIA members (we represent 97 percent of North American cruise business) use technology and follow practices and procedures that meet, and in most cases exceed, these requirements. In many cases, the purified wastewater effluent from a cruise ship is cleaner than that of many municipalities.

It is regrettable your reporter failed to contact the industry for this information. Moreover, the EPA, in its December 2008 Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report, commended industry for its solid waste (cans, glass, paper, etc) management practices. The report noted the cruise industry’s overall environmental standards are “designed to increase compliance with regulatory regimes and in some cases incorporate voluntary standards and procedures that go beyond what is required by law or regulation.”

More information is available at www.CruiseIndustryFacts.com.