Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cruise ships are back—so is their waste

This year the federal government implemented regulations around waste dumping, but it's unclear if these measures are being followed. Victoria industry groups are silent on the local implications

By Tim Ford
August 31, 2022
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cruise ships are back—so is their waste

This year the federal government implemented regulations around waste dumping, but it's unclear if these measures are being followed. Victoria industry groups are silent on the local implications

By Tim Ford
Aug 31, 2022
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cruise ships are back—so is their waste

This year the federal government implemented regulations around waste dumping, but it's unclear if these measures are being followed. Victoria industry groups are silent on the local implications

By Tim Ford
August 31, 2022
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Cruise ships are back—so is their waste
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The return of international liners to the Island’s waters this summer has represented a return to normalcy for the tourism-heavy city.

But 2022 could be the last season that looks “normal” for how cruises on the West Coast handle the substantial volume of waste the ships dump in BC waters each year.

A report by Stand.earth and West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL) released in January 2021 painted an unflattering portrait of the cruise industry, saying that before the COVID-19 pandemic, cruise ships were dumping 31 billion litres of waste into Canadian waters every year. The report’s authors pointed the finger at what they called lax Canadian regulatory measures that lag behind those of the United States.

Further reporting from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released in March 2022 contained similar criticisms of the industry, alleging cruise ships were responsible for a majority of three different types of wastewater, despite making up only 2% of ships in the WWF’s analysis.

Despite the federal government’s apparent acknowledgment and work to solve the problem, prominent Victoria organizations that deal with cruise ships, as well as the cruise lines themselves, have been silent on the matter. 

Few of the organizations agreed to comment on the ships’ environmental impact. But it hasn’t escaped the notice of the passengers themselves.

“This was our first cruise,” said Shampagne Salas, a passenger from Hawaii. “Just seeing the waste of everybody, it did kind of tug at our hearts.”

Non-mandatory regulations

The reporting appears to have had an effect at the federal level, with Transport Canada issuing new environmental measures in April 2022 that prohibited discharge of greywater and sewage within three nautical miles from shore, as well as calling for treating greywater together with sewage before discharge, and strengthening the treatment of sewage.

Notably, the measures were all non-mandatory, though in recent self-reporting data, the companies claim to be following them. Environmental groups have taken issue with the lack of transparency in that data.

Anna Barford, a shipping campaigner with Stand.earth, called the self-reported data “completely devoid.”

“We don't know what cruise ships or companies were reporting,” she told Capital Daily. “We don't know if it was company-by-company reporting. We don't know what success rates were. We don't know where dumping did happen. There's simply no evidence to support the notion that the BC toilet bowl has been closed.”

The new regulations also don’t address the third type of wastewater the WWF measured in their report: scrubber washwater. This particular type of wastewater is the result of “scrubber” systems aboard the majority of cruise ships. These systems are devices that clean fumes from engine and boiler exhaust by mixing in seawater. They purge sulfur oxides into the ocean as a liquid by-product, rather than putting it into the atmosphere.

The WWF says that scrubber washwater is acidic, and contains large amounts of heavy metals and potentially toxic hydrocarbons that are known to cause cancer. They claim that for every tonne of sulfur dioxide discharged by scrubbers, the ocean will be unable to absorb a half-tonne of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Oceans are the world’s largest carbon sink.

Cruise ships, according to the WWF’s analysis (which looked at the number of ships passing through Canadian waters, cross-referenced with the ships’ attributes) account for 66% of scrubber washwater produced in Canadian waters annually.

Silence from tourism organizations

With the federal government not yet regulating scrubber washwater, however, 2022’s cruise season largely proceeded as a return to normal. And Victoria’s local tourist scene seems to be operating in the belief that nothing has changed, or is about to change.

Capital Daily sought out comment on the WCEL report and its possible ramifications from multiple tourism and business agencies, including Destination BC, Destination Greater Victoria, the Downtown Victoria Business Association, and Experience Victoria.

All declined to comment, with the exception of Experience Victoria, whose CEO, Steve Earnshaw, stated that his organization is one of the cruise lines’ primary tour operators, and they follow Global Sustainability Tourism Council guidelines.

“Before starting Experience Victoria, I worked onboard cruise ships for 15 years and witnessed first-hand that the environment is at the forefront of the cruise lines’ core values,” Earnshaw said.

“Each contract, we would participate in environmental sessions where the Environmental Officer would drink from the tap of the onboard sewage treatment plant to prove how clean it is after processing. This was all the proof I needed to feel confident in their environmental practices related to waste.”

Some of the other organizations Capital Daily reached out to redirected requests for comment to other agencies. Destination Greater Victoria referred requests to the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA).

In response to questions on potential changes in federal regulations governing cruise ship wastewater, the GVHA sent back a statement from CEO Ian Robertson, which said that the harbour authority is committed to pursuing shore power along with other environmental initiatives.

“GVHA continually seeks collaboration with its commercial vendors, liveaboards and government to adopt new practices, technology and research as we work together to minimize environmental footprints,” Robertson said.

“As stewards of harbourfront spaces, we envision a working harbour where people live, work and play. That is why we consistently initiate, implement and evaluate our environmental footprint and that of our vendors.”

The cruise lines themselves are being tight-lipped about the matter. Requests for comment were sent to Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Carnival Cruise Lines. Neither Royal Caribbean or Norwegian Cruise Line responded prior to publication, while a representative for Carnival directed requests for comment to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Donna Spalding, the association’s spokesperson, who is also a member of the board of directors for the Vancouver-based Chamber of Shipping, responded on behalf of CLIA,

Spalding slammed the WCEL report in a statement to Capital Daily, calling it an inaccurate “misinformation campaign.”

“Unfortunately, the report referenced includes information that inaccurately reflects the requirements of Canadian regulations and current direction to the industry, cites information that is more than a decade old, and ignores the advancements and leadership of the cruise industry, which represents less than 1% of commercial ships,” Spalding said.

“Concerningly, the report makes wide accusations without proof (using wording such as ‘is almost certainly’ and ‘estimated’ preceding the claims). Such techniques are widely recognized as misinformation campaigns.”

She also referred Capital Daily to a statement from Transport Canada, released on Aug. 18, that contained results from their new environmental measures. According to Transport Canada, while the measures were non-mandatory, only one out of 47 cruise ships entering Canadian waters this year was unable to fully implement the new measures.

However, the federal agency reiterated in the release that their measures did not cover scrubber washwater, and stated that there are “additional planned measures” still to come.

In response to questions about scrubber washwater specifically, Spalding directed Capital Daily to two studies which she says demonstrate “favourable analysis” of exhaust-gas cleaning systems when operating in open loop mode—mixing seawater to produce scrubber washwater.

The same study, released in March 2021, however, also concluded that scrubber washwater can have potentially toxic effects on marine organisms, and can accumulate in food chains.

It’s for those reasons and for their own analysis that the WWF and WECL have both called on the Canadian government to do more about scrubber washwater specifically, including calling for a full ban of scrubbers and the promotion of cleaner alternative fuels.

The WECL says that political momentum is building against scrubber washwater, and in March of this year, the Port of Vancouver banned the dumping of scrubber washwater while at berth and at anchor.

Passengers surprised

The silence of tourist organizations and cruise lines on the issue was reflected in the lack of awareness of those visiting BC’s shores on the cruise ships themselves.

Passengers at Ogden Point who spoke to Capital Daily about cruise ship waste were universally surprised at the very existence of scrubber washwater. According to multiple passengers, onboard information and literature emphasized the cruise ships’ environmentally friendly technology, such as solar panels and recycled water systems.

“There’s a channel on the TV that you can watch, and it shows us everything that goes on in the cruise ship,” said Shampagne Salas, who travelled on Royal Carribean International’s Quantum of the Seas. “It was very informational.”

Scrubber systems, however, were not something that passengers recalled hearing about. While the Quantum of the Seas and, according to the WCEL, a high proportion of cruise ships operate with scrubbers, none of the passengers Capital Daily spoke to said they had heard of the washwater produced by these systems.

Cathy Johnson, a passenger from New Jersey on Quantum of the Seas, expressed surprise that the Canadian government lags behind the United States on regulating cruise ships.

“I think it’s only because I’m so disgusted with the US, and so much denial,” Johnson said. “I always feel like everyone else knows better than us… But maybe that’s just because I’ve got a nice feeling about Canada.”

She added that she hopes experts from the industry as well as scientists and engineers can come together to find a path forward.

“How can we help the economy and not mess up the ecosystem?” Johnson said. “There has to be a balance.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by other passengers who expressed concern that the cruise industry could be damaging to the environment.

“I would look to change,” said Sue, a passenger from Florida who only gave her first name. “I’m just very environmentally active and want to see change. I would definitely do some studying on that.”

While Transport Canada works towards a new regulatory framework for 2023, and tourist operators and cruise lines finish up a season that represents a return to normal, reports and data may continue to come. With that, passengers too may start to question if they would return to normal on cruise lines.

“We don’t know yet if we’re going to go on another cruise,” Salas said. “But it definitely came up that it’s not environmentally friendly to the islands.”

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