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Tuesday, March 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State, industry agree to stricter limits on cruise-line sewage dumping

Seattle Times staff reporter

How to comment on the draft rules


The public is invited to comment on the agreement between the state and the cruise industry before it is finalized. A copy of the agreement is online at www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq. Comments will be accepted through April 6. They may made by mail to the Ecology Department, 3190 160th Ave. S.E., Bellevue 98008; or by e-mail: dpal461@ecy.wa.gov; or by fax: 425-649-7098.
The cruise-ship industry and the state have agreed to stricter rules for wastewater discharge from the massive floating hotels nearly 11 months after a Seattle-based ship dumped tons of sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Under the proposed agreement, cruise ships must use some of the latest, Coast Guard-approved equipment to treat and dump sewage and wastewater inside Washington waters, and they may not dump heavier sewage sludge within 12 miles of the coast.

Environmental groups quickly criticized the pact yesterday, saying it doesn't go far enough and leaves most of the monitoring up to the industry.

"It's shameful the public and the environment have been sold out so the polluters can make a profit," said Teri Shore, a spokeswoman for the Bluewater Network, of San Francisco.

The proposed agreement, or "memorandum of understanding," involves the state Ecology Department, the Port of Seattle and the Northwest CruiseShip Association (NWCA). After public comment is evaluated, the state expects a final agreement to be in effect by the end of April, in time for this year's Alaska cruise season.

John Hansen, president of the Vancouver, B.C.-based cruise-ship group, said the association represents almost all cruise lines that operate in Washington. All members will observe the new rules, Hansen said. "This is really a high-quality agreement that provides a high level of protection."

Cruise ships may not discharge waste in Washington waters unless it is treated using a state-of-the-art system, under the new agreement. Even so, the ships must be a mile away from port at Elliott Bay and must be moving at least 6 knots to disperse the waste.

The Ecology Department says the treatment systems yield wastewater as clean as water discharged by local sewage-treatment systems, provided the systems are functioning properly.

Cruise-ship traffic has skyrocketed in Seattle in the past five years, with seven big ships calling Elliott Bay home during the Alaska cruise season.

Of the seven, six have the advanced sewage-treatment equipment, and the seventh soon will, Hansen said.

Cruise ships would have to add more intense filtration, including ultraviolet treatment, to be allowed to discharge their waste at port.

The new rules also say cruise ships may not dump sludge, the leftover solids from wastewater treatment, within 12 miles of any Washington shore. There are additional restrictions to keep cruise ships from dumping near the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, off Washington's northwest coastline.

Federal law is less stringent, allowing wastewater discharge in coastal waters with much lower standards of treatment, and permits sludge dumping within three miles of shore, said Larry Altose, a Department of Ecology spokesman.

The proposed agreement also would require cruise lines to test discharges monthly and submit reports, which will be available to the public, to the state, Altose said. Ecology Department officials also would be allowed to board ships and audit testing any time.

"It's going to provide a higher level of protection, and it's going to provide visibility, so there's accountability," Altose said.

The state also would maintain its right to impose fines or other penalties if cruise ships willfully violate water-quality standards.

Negotiations that led to the proposed agreement began last May, shortly after the cruise ship Norwegian Sun accidentally released 40 tons of human waste into the Strait.

In January, state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, introduced an unsuccessful bill in the Legislature that would have barred cruise ships from dumping any waste, treated or not, within Washington waters.

Dickerson's measure was largely based on the demands of environmental advocates, who say the latest agreement does little to improve pollution risks.

Shore, of the Bluewater Network, said her group doesn't trust the industry to do its own testing nor does it trust the treatment technology. She cited some system malfunctions in Alaskan waters as examples.

Shore and her group also contend that without legislation, the proposed agreement is toothless.

"No dumping is better than monitoring dumping," Shore said. "Volunteer agreements never work. 'Trust me,' is not an environmental policy."

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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