On Monday, the California Senate Appropriations Committee voted in favor of legislation making it illegal for cruise ships to dump sewage in California waters. Although an attempt to keep the Pacific blue and feces-free may have seemed a sure thing in a state that gazes so fondly at its coastal resources, the bill faced strong opposition from the cruise-ship industry and its allies, including the Port of San Diego.
Environmentalists, some lawmakers and watchdog groups say they are outraged that the Port of San Diego-the agency tasked with the economic and environmental stewardship of San Diego's tidelands-fought to allow an industry with what they say is a dismal history of violating environmental laws and agreements to continue fouling California waters. The committee's favorable vote was a surprise to both supporters and opponents who thought the legislation was doomed after the committee failed to endorse it last week. Before being reintroduced, one port lobbyist assured CityBeat that Monday's vote was simply a "courtesy" and would fail again. He was wrong.
The legislation, which still faces hurdles in the Senate and Assembly before moving on to the governor's desk, could make it a violation of state law for cruise ships to release treated or untreated sewage within three miles off California's shores. Although federal law already prohibits cruise ships from dumping untreated sewage within that area, there are currently no state or federal laws regulating the dumping of treated sewage.
Proponents of the legislation accuse the Port District of selling out, supporting lax environmental regulations in hopes of attracting more cruise ships to San Diego.
"It's surprising, and it's stupid," says Annie Sartor, a local organizer with Oceana, an environmental group. "The Port of San Diego is supposed to be protecting the port, and here they are catering to an industry that's polluting."
While a typical cruise ship generates approximately 30,000 gallons of sewage every day, environmentalists say that the current lack of state laws regulating treated sewage provides cruise lines with a legal loophole through which they can dump millions of gallons of dangerous material into California waters each year.
"You have cruise ships being able to dump treated sewage within three miles, which may in fact be raw sewage because the treatment technology is very outdated and the treatment standards are pretty much non-existent," says Dana Dubose, director of Oceana's Southern California efforts.
A call to the port office provided a hint as to why the agency would oppose legislation designed to keep California waters clean. An effervescent female voice featured on the port's hold music announces, "San Diego's cruise-ship business is booming like never before."
Actually, "booming" is an understatement. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, after a 200-percent increase in cruise departures during the first quarter of 2004 compared to that of 2003, San Diego now ranks as the ninth-largest departure port in America. This year the port expects nearly 200 cruise ships to offload more than 500,000 passengers and contribute roughly $300 million to the local economy.
But dollar signs aren't the only factor influencing how the port uses its political clout. Ben Clay, the Port of San Diego's Sacramento lobbyist, explains that the port is engaged in a high-stakes popularity contest. With other Mexican and California ports vying for the industry's attention and money, the port can't afford to not support the cruise lines.
"Cruise ships can vote with their hulls. They can go wherever it's friendly," Clay says. "It's the threat of the cruise-ship industry picking up and moving somewhere else. That's really it. We don't want to jeopardize all of the effort we put into bringing them here."
Supporters of state dumping laws laugh at the prospect. They say cruise lines often threaten to desert ports as a tactic to bully them into supporting their political interests.
"The cruise market runs up and down the length of the Western United States. That's where the passengers are and no one is going to abandon that market," says state Assemblyman Joe Simitian, who authored the legislation. "That's the kind of environmental blackmail that ought to be rejected on its face."
Another piece of legislation, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee after the port and cruise industry withdrew their opposition, could make it illegal for cruise ships to dump gray water-wastewater generated from showers, sinks, laundries and kitchens-in state waters, but still needs the governor's approval. According to industry figures, a typical cruise ship produces about 250,000 gallons of gray water per day, and recent testing by the state of Alaska found that gray water samples contain high levels of fecal matter, ammonia, chlorine, copper, nickel, zinc and arsenic.
But environmentalists say they need to pass both laws in order to make a difference. "If you're prohibited from discharging gray water but not [sewage], then what's to keep you from putting your gray water into your [sewage]?" asks Simitian.
However, the International Council of Cruise Lines, a group that represents the industry and has tried to defeat the sewage bill, claims it's unnecessary because its members already voluntarily travel a mile beyond California waters before discharging any sewage or gray water.
That guarantee is good enough for the port, but critics say past experience has taught them that the cruise lines aren't trustworthy. According to the environmental group Bluewater, the industry paid more than $80 million in fines between 1993 and 2003 for 300 acts of dumping oil, garbage, hazardous waste, sewage and gray water, violating air-pollution laws, damaging coral reefs and falsifying environmental records. Of those acts, 55 occurred in California waters, several within miles of San Diego. That history raises suspicions about the industry's motivations for opposing the sewage-dumping laws.
"If they say that they are already voluntarily not dumping anything, then why would they go so far out of their way to challenge a bill that they are supposedly already in compliance with?" asks Sartor.
Sandy George, a Sacramento lobbyist for the ICCL, says it wasn't the distance ships would have been required to travel before releasing sewage, but rather a limit on up-and-coming technology that fueled industry opposition. She says a few cruise lines have begun installing $2 million advanced wastewater treatment systems on some of their ships, systems rivaling those of many municipal treatment facilities. George claims they have tested well in Alaska, and their discharge is clean enough to drink. However, the systems need to discharge continuously, making it impossible for the more eco-friendly cruise ships to legally ply California waters under the proposed law.
"Although we don't have a problem with the policy behind the bill-not discharging in California waters if you don't have these systems-we strongly oppose any bill that says you can't use the best available technology in California."
Ironically, the few cruise ships equipped with advanced systems are already prohibited from using them within port waters because the port currently maintains a no-dumping policy within San Diego Bay. The discharge has to be stored onboard and dumped elsewhere.
For Clay, it's a shining example of the port keeping the cruise lines in check and the environment clean.
For Sartor, it's maddening that the port could be so shortsighted as to oppose a measure designed to protect state waters while safeguarding its own. "All of the water is connected, right?" she asks. "Just because the port is protected doesn't mean that something a few miles out won't affect the port, because it will."
Countered Clay: "I'm not saying [the environmentalists] are wrong... but they need to understand how important this is to San Diego. We sure as hell aren't going to degrade our tourism by screwing up our port."
Oceana's Dubose says the port's logic is corrupt. "In looking at the benefits, one also has to realize there are serious negative economic consequences of cruise-ship pollution," she says.She warns that while the dollars may be rolling in, all of the sewage that gets dumped in state waters will have adverse affects on San Diego's coastal resources, the main attraction for tourists and the cruise-ship industry.