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State fines cruise ship for discharges in Strait of Juan de Fuca

Miami-based Celebrity Cruises, Inc. has been fined $100,000 for allowing a cruise ship Mercury to discharge more than a half million gallons of untreated wastewater into Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2005.

Inspectors from the Washington Department of Ecology learned about the discharge after reviewing wastewater discharge records aboard the Mercury in September.

The records indicated the ship discharged untreated wastewater 10 times over nine days in September and October 2005. The discharges violated state water-quality standards as well as a 2004 agreement banning the dumping of waste in Washington waters unless it's been cleaned with a special treatment system.

Ecology inspectors also found records on the ship that contradicted a December 2005 letter from the vessel's owners to Ecology saying the Mercury had not discharged wastewater in Washington during the 2005 cruise season.

An April 2004 agreement between Ecology, the Northwest Cruise Ship Association and the Port of Seattle bans cruise-ship wastewater discharges into Washington waters, except from vessels using advanced treatment systems approved by Ecology. The Mercury did not have an Ecology-approved system when the discharges occurred. The agreement also authorizes Ecology to inspect wastewater treatment systems and associated records aboard ships that belong to members of the association.

"Controlling cruise ship pollution is an important part of the state's broad effort to protect and restore Puget Sound and the rest of our marine waters," said Dave Peeler, manager of Ecology's water quality program. "While Celebrity kept good records and cooperated in sharing this information, all of these city-sized ships must take great caution to adhere to the agreement and avoid illegal discharges in our state's waters."

The agency first proposed requiring cruise ships to inform state authorities where they dump sewage in Washington waters in 2003 after the Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Sun released about 40 tons of raw sewage off Whidbey Island near Keystone.

The incident sparked widespread outrage and calls for cruise lines to prevent such pollution.

With up to 5,000 passengers, cruise ships are like small, floating cities, each one generating a city's worth of sewage, wash water and other waste. Cruise firms have faced widespread criticism and multi-million-dollar fines for illegal dumping, and in some cases, falsifying records.

According to a study by WashPIRG, the Washington Public Interest Research Group, between 1993 and 1998, the cruise industry was cited for 87 illegal dumping events in U.S. waters and incurred over $100 million in fines. And when Alaska tested wastewater discharged by cruise ships into the ocean in 2000, concentrations of fecal coliform in the wastewater were as high as 100,000 times the federal standard.

The study reports that in one day, a cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew produces 30,000 gallons of sewage, 270,000 gallons of other wastewater, plus additional hazardous wastes, biomedical waste, oily bilge water and solid waste.

A bill calling for stricter state regulation of cruise ship pollution in Washington waters failed to pass during the state Legislature's 2006 session, in part because of concerns raised by Indian tribes that it didn't go far enough in protecting tribal shellfish interests.

The bill is to be considered again in 2007 after a major virus impact study is completed.

In a press release from Ecology, Celebrity Cruises President Dan Hanrahan said the dumping won't happen again.

"Celebrity Cruises takes full responsibility for these discharges and has taken corrective actions to prevent them in the future," he said.

Hanrahan said the location of the discharge was the result of a misinterpretation of the reach of Washington state waters.

To address the issue, the company has since invested some $50 million wastewater purification systems on its ships, which he said makes the wastewater clean enough to drink, he said.

The wastewater contained mostly untreated sink, shower and laundry water commonly known as "gray water" and a small percentage of treated sewage from a Coast Guard-certified marine sanitation device. This type of wastewater typically contains extremely high levels of fecal coliform bacteria and nutrients.

Fecal coliform pollution indicates pathogens are present that could contaminate shellfish beds and harm people who eat contaminated shellfish. In this case, no records of shellfish contamination were reported.

Nutrients can contribute to the growth of algae, which can lead to low oxygen levels in marine waters that sometimes suffocate marine life.

Ecology, NWCA and the Port of Seattle signed the 2004 memorandum of understanding in response to increasing cruise ship traffic. The agreement gives Washington's marine waters greater protection than typically provided under federal and international law. Flows from advanced wastewater treatment systems have lower pollutant levels than conventional ship treatment or most land-based methods.

The company has 30 days to apply to Ecology for relief from the penalty or appeal the fine to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board.

Information on the memorandum is available online at www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/wastewater/cruise_mou/index.html.

"This is an unfortunate issue," said Fred Felleman, a consultant with the non-profit group Bluewater Network and local marine advocate. "Most mariners should be able to read a nautical chart."

In some cases the violations occurred within a couple of miles of commercial shellfish and geoduck beds on the Olympic Peninsula.
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