It was the 27th of June, 2012 and Captain Forrest Young was sending an interesting letter to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS): As he was anchored on the west side of the Marquesas Keys, his passengers became alarmed by the peculiar aspect of the water. After a quick and nauseating investigation, Captain Young knew exactly what they were looking at: thousands and thousands of human feces passing by with the incoming tide. Young is the founder of Dynasty Marine Associates, Inc. and has been diving in the Keys since 1978, the year he earned a Masters Degree in Biological Sciences from East Stroudsbourg University. “Since I think that the City of Key West no longer dumps raw sewage into the harbor,” wrote Young in his complaint to FKNMS, “It must have come from cruise ships as that could be the only source of such a concentrated source point.”
Captain Young’s comment is not the only one. Actually the comment log kept for the FKNMS re-scoping process contains an impressive number of complaints from people concerned with the impact of cruise ships on water quality. NOAA is well aware of the environmental impacts of cruise ships. In a 2011 Condition Report NOAA lists the many diverse pollutants expelled by cruise ships and notes,
“ocean currents have the potential to transport theses pollutants into sanctuary waters… Although cruise ships are capable of generating volumes of waste comparable to a small city they are not subject to the same regulations and monitoring requirements as a land-based equivalent. Cruise ships also have the potential to cause benthic disturbances with each porting. Wakes generated by vessels and propeller turbulence re-suspends sediment and transports it elsewhere.”
Officially NOAA is very concerned with sewage discharge. Recently, in Key West harbor, a liveaboard was accused by a NOAA officer of creating a “biological disaster” because some discoloration of the paint around a holding tank deck cap indicated that sewage had been “dripping” into the ocean.
However, when it comes to cruise ship discharges, that apparent indignation seems to have very little to no traction at all at the NOAA level. The Sanctuary is in the process of re-scoping and tidying up its regulations. There is talk of additional “No Take Zones”, more licenses and permits, but interestingly enough, cruise ship discharge regulations have not been mentioned as an issue needing review, which could explain why Captain Forrest Young was left on that hot Sunday afternoon, floating on a sea of human turd bobbing around his boat; his complaint left unaddressed.
A 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service for members of Congress contends that during one week’s voyage (a ship with 3000 passengers and crew) can generate up to 210,000 gallons of human sewage, one million gallons of gray water, 25,000 gallons of bilge water, 130 gallons of hazardous waste, and eight tons of solid waste.
Under current sanctuary regulations cruise ships can no longer discharge human sewage until they are about two miles from the barrier reef. However, cruise ships can legally dump graywater (from sinks, showers, laundry, and galleys) just four miles south of Fort Zachary Taylor. A 2008 Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report published by EPA, shows cruise ship graywater can contain fecal coliform levels exceeding national standards for treated sewage [from vessel Marine Sanitation Devices] by over 10,000 times.
The cruise ship industry’s quasi-nomadic nature makes it very resilient to regulatory effects. Even in places like the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary in California, where sanctuary waters are so well protected that all wastewater discharges from cruise ships are now prohibited, cruise ship operators have been caught discharging sewage. The New York Times reported that a huge public outcry led to the banning of the 1000 passenger cruise ship Crystal Harmony from the Bay when it was discovered it had discharged 36,000 gallons of wastewater into the sanctuary near a sea otter refuge.
National efforts to prohibit cruise ship discharge (described here in a report by Environmental News Service) were defeated by Congress for the second time in 2009 and many have expressed doubt that NOAA and the EPA, despite their good will, could ever tackle the 33-billion-dollar a year cruise ship industry.
For Key Westers opposed to a study on dredging for a larger ship channel, no amount of studying is going to change the fact that bringing in more unregulated cruise ships with nearly twice the passenger capacity would be irresponsible.
For those supporting the study, the hopes and financial interests of businesses catering to cruise ships deserve a full assessment of the situation with cruise ship dockings forecasted to decline.
Much of the controversy about the “study” has revolved around two issues: first, what is really going to be studied and second, can we trust the study?
- What Is Going To Be Studied?
According to the Pro-Study group, Key West will be provided with an in-depth analysis of the socio-economic impacts of increased cruise ship traffic in Key West. Would we be able to handle nearly double the current traffic, more conch trains, trolleys and Duck Tours, more t-Shirt shops and $5-dollar stores? Could congestion caused by an increase in cruise ship passengers scare longer-term tourists away from the island? Those are all legitimate questions. The problem is when we asked the Army Corp of Engineers if they would be addressing those concerns in a feasibility study the answer was a categorical no.
“Although local effects are very important,” says Eric Bush, Planning and Policy Division, USACE, Jacksonville, “we purposefully don’t evaluate second and third order effects on local economies (jobs created, multipliers, etc)… If we counted local jobs created, net regional effects etc, bigger cities w bigger populations would always be the winners.”
“With respect to social impacts,” says Bush, “I do not envision that the feasibility study would go into much detail on all of the secondary social impacts…”
Not so, says the Pro-Study group, the $3 Million Army Corp study will include whatever we as a community decide is important. But it looks like that doesn’t necessarily happen… unless your willing to sue the Corp. Key West The Newspaper has looked into several similar ACE studies. In Charleston, South Carolina, the Corp is being sued for refusing to conduct a socio-economic study about the effects of a new cruise ship terminal. “The expansion of cruise ship activity in Charleston has generated heated public debate,” wrote Corp attorneys, but, they concluded, “the policy trade-offs associated with tourism are decidedly local considerations that fall outside the purview of the Corp’s regulatory authority.”
The Judge has recently ruled that the Corp was required to enlarge its “scope of analysis” to include the construction of the entire cruise ship terminal [rather than just the pilings that would support it]. However, nothing in the Judge’s Order directly reverses the Corp’s policy objecting to a requirement to study peripheral local policy issues.
Which brings us to the second question:
2. Can we trust an Army Corp Study?
By its very nature the Corp is not a conservation oriented organization; it prides itself on the pioneer spirit of its engineers. They’ve built bridges, dams, waterways through the wilderness. The Sun Sentennial reports that, in Fort Lauderdale, the Corps is currently embroiled in a dispute with a co-agency – the National Marine Fisheries Service over allegations that the Corp deliberately downplayed the environmental impacts of a dredging project in Port Everglades.
Even if a Corp’s feasibility study set aside millions for “mitigation” purposes, there is considerable controversy as to its commitment to such mitigation projects. A 2004 investigation by the Department of the Interior (DOI) on Mitigation of Coral Reef Impacts blasts the Army Corp for its lack of monitoring of mitigation projects. The report concludes that less than half of the mitigation projects initially required were actually implemented. Of those less than half had monitoring reports and of those only a very small number qualified as a “success”. Artificial reefs audited by the DOI were reported to have “settled into, or were covered by sand and [were] no longer functional”, another was described as “little more than acres of concrete rubble.”
So, is the Army Corp uncommitted to mitigation or could it be that mitigation itself is a pipe dream? In August of 1994, the “Columbus Iselin”, a 155-foot research vessel went aground on an ancient coral reef near Looe Key. It was considered a major catastrophe for what was then a pristine coral reef. $2.5 Million was charged against the vessel owners to fund a restoration project. When we asked NOAA to send us the monitoring reports on the project we were told that there were no formal reports on the success of the restoration effort that could be provided.
In 1991, the 60’ “Jacqueline L” ran aground on the reef at Western Sambo. A $250,000 fine was assessed and the restoration project was completed in July of 2000. But NOAA reports that when the site was inspected in 2005 it “was found to be nearly obliterated, with essentially no coral colonies, or even fragments of same, remaining.”
So, if even NOAA (with a commitment to the environment that is well documented) can’t make it work, who will be able to?