Archive for May 2013

Jane Fishman: A trip to a cruise ship

When one of my favorite cousins — who decided to become a doctor in her early 40s — wrote and said she and her poet/bon vivant husband, both from Los Angeles, would be in Charleston, S.C., for a day and would I consider visiting, I said, “Mais oui! Of course!”

They would be arriving from Key West, Fla., and before that, points in Colombia, the Panama Canal, Costa Rica and Mexico.

My cousins are of the cruise ship culture.

“You can’t miss it,” said Sheila on my cell as I drove into Charleston on a misty, humid Tuesday. “It’s just down from the Old Market.”

How hard could that be?

“Can’t miss it,” the taxicab driver said at the service station, grinning slightly as if he had views to share about the “culture” but was keeping them to himself. “It’s 12 stories tall.”

“Right by the Custom House,” a police officer on Broad Street said.

“I know the rest,” I said. “I can’t miss it.”

I missed it. Every time.

Turns out I had another image in mind. I was looking for a boat. I was expecting a vessel, a ship, maybe even a very, very big ship.

Not a shopping center, a condominium complex, a commercial center, a strip mall, a block of concrete. (And this — the Crystal Symphony — is a midsize boat with only 900 passengers, not 1,500 or 2,000. Here, there was only one boat docked, not three or four.)

“I waved at you from our room when you were walking down the entryway with Michael,” my cousin said. “Didn’t you see me?”

Didn’t I see her? She was a speck, a dot, a smidgen on this white behemoth of a structure sitting absolutely still as if it were a permanent fixture on the horizon. I saw the water, sort of. I saw the beast. I did not see anyone waving at me.

I showed my passport (though previously vetted), emptied my pockets, left my driver’s license with the uniformed guard and entered another world. I’ve never been on a cruise ship before. I’ve never been anywhere with a karaoke bar, a well-stocked library, a bridge room, a computer room, a whirlpool, a sauna, a golf driving net, a cigar bar, a sommelier, a movie theater or a Las Vegas-style showroom under one roof. It’s a small city.

The library looked impressive.

“How many books have you read?” I asked.

Five for Sheila, three for Michael.

On our way to a restaurant that’s open all day, we passed many fine, upscale stores. By agreement with the port city, none are open when the ship is docked. Once it sets sail (well, that’s the terminology, but I doubt there are any actual sails), the shops open for business.

“Are you hungry? Want some coffee?” Michael said.

We headed to the buffet table of lox, croissants, fruit, bagels — and that was just the cold stuff. In minutes, a beautiful latte was delivered to the table.

When we finished, we got up for a spin around the ship. There was no bill. There’s never a bill.

The menus on the ship’s restaurants do not include prices. No one needs to carry money on a cruise ship. There’s no money exchange.

It’s all “handled” ahead of time. More food? More wine or beer (not the really good stuff; that costs extra)? Bring it on.

“A friend of mine likes to say after he got back from a cruise he went out to a restaurant and when he was finished he got up without paying,” Michael said. “The same friend said he had to remind his wife to put her napkin on her lap. Usually it’s the waiter who tends to such things.”

Or a butler, if you want to pay for it.

Later that day we left the ship — the efficiency of waiters cleaning the carpet, setting up for lunch, the conviviality of other guests — and headed to Charleston for lunch (though who could be hungry?) It was low tide, the sky a teal blue, the pluff mud a shiny, squishy gray.

I stopped to consider the sweet, pungent yet rotten-egg odor of the marsh and I wanted to take my shoes off and feel the mud in my toes.

I took a deep breath. My shoulders dropped three inches.

Then I thought about Savannah as a port for cruise ships. I thought about more horse-drawn carriages crossing Liberty Street, more tour buses ambling around the tender infrastructure of River Street, more multiple bicycle thingeys clogging up Bull Street, and my shoulders went up three inches.

When we parted, we hugged and kvelled (Yiddish for being happy and proud) and said how great it was to be with family, especially since we’re so spread apart.

“But if we do meet again on a cruise ship,” I told them, “Please, dear God, don’t let it be in Savannah.”

Jane Fishman’s columns appear weekly in Accent. Contact her at or call 912-484-3045.

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Cruise Ship Industry’s Environmental Record: Not Triumphant

Cruise lines are big on luxury, with an environmental impact to match. With outdated regulations and uneven cleanup efforts, there may be rough seas ahead for the industry (and the environment).


Much was made in the media about the days-long stranding of the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph this winter, after a fire disabled the ship’s power systems, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. Passengers complained of having to defecate into plastic bags and other things one doesn’t expect to do on vacation. Then, while it was being repaired at an Alabama shipyard, high winds dislodged the boat from its mooring and sent it into the Mobile River, where it collided with a cargo ship and sustained further damage. A shipyard employee was blown into the water as well, and went missing.

The Triumph appears to be cursed. But the bigger blighting, over time, has been the environmental impacts left in the wake of many other cruise ships owned by Carnival Corporation (which also owns Princess Cruise Lines, Holland America, Costa Cruises and a few other lines), Royal Caribbean and a handful of other cruise ship operators, dating back decades.

Polluted discharges (of sewage, grey water and oily bilge water) and air emissions are the chief sources of problems, but they also mark the biggest potential areas for improvement, says Marcie Keever, who directs the Oceans & Vessels Program for environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth (FOE). Keever also leads a yearly Cruise Report Card, which tracks the progress, or lack thereof, various cruise lines are making, year to year, in cleaning up their operations and complying with new environmental policies.

Over the past two decades, cruise lines have been cited and fined many millions of dollars due to significant missteps, from discharging sewage close to shore and dumping trash to spilling fuel and violating air quality standards. Knowing all this would take weeks of research were it not for the dogged efforts of Ross Klein, a professor in the school of social work at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a cruise industry watchdog. You’ll find a detailed list of environmental fines here and a summary of the largest ones here.

The late 1990s, says Keever, were the really dark days. “All these cruise lines were busted for discharging,” she says. “They were on probation for a decade, and that was a learning experience for them.”

Those lessons have been unevenly learned, however. For example, despite the fact the Carnival is the parent company of Princess Cruises and Costa Cruises, the former appears at the top of the FOE report card, with a B+, while Costa landed an F.

To understand what does and does not constitute illegal behavior, here’s a very short primer.

The international standard is that no boats may discharge things like untreated wastewater within three nautical miles offshore. Ships are required to have treatment systems called marine sanitation devices, which settle out the solids and treat the liquid waste before it is discharged. The Coast Guard inspects ships, but beyond 3 nautical miles, “there really isn’t anyone watching what is coming out the tailpipe,” says Keever.

These federal standards for cruise ships were actually part of the Clean Water Act, but they’ve not been updated in more than 30 years, according to Keever. When the Clean Water Act was written, the cruise industry bore little resemblance to its current size – it has seen significant growth and the size and capacity of the ships mushroomed. The largest cruise ships now serve upwards of 6,000 guests.

In a 2009 report, Ross Klein wrote that Explorer of the Seas, a 3,000 passenger Royal Caribbean ship, produces “40,000 gallons of sewage, over 450,000 gallons of gray water, 4,000 gallons of oily bilge water, and as much as 19 tons of solid waste” each day. They’re floating mini-cities.

Like cities, they consume massive amounts of power. In his 2009 book Paradise Lost At Sea: Rethinking Cruise Vacations, Klein cites research showing cruise ships have a carbon footprint that is three times larger, per passenger, than a Boeing 747.

Air emissions have been another major concerns; ships have historically run on bunker fuel, which burns significantly dirtier than even diesel truck fuel.

“The Environmental Protection Agency put forward data that shows not only how damaging bunker fuel emissions are to public health in port communities, but also how far [these emissions] traveled inland,” says Keever. This finding pushed the U.S. and Canada to create an emissions control area that requires all ships to burn cleaner fuel within 200 nautical miles of shore – something that Keever says will prevent more than 10,000 early mortalities and save millions in healthcare costs.

FOE and other groups have lobbied Congress to pass comprehensive cleaner cruise ship regulations, but no dice. The State of Alaska, however, did take a proactive stance as it started attracting more and more cruise ships to its ports. It enacted a law requiring ships that ply its waters to install advanced water treatment systems that are designed to remove nearly all traces of really harmful bacteria, such as fecal coliform. It also monitors air pollution from ships and employs observers to ensure compliance. Maine, Washington, and California also have regulations that exceed federal laws.

The industry has not suffered a recent environmental catastrophe on par with the grounding of the Costa Concordia in a marine national park in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Tuscany in early 2012, which left 32 passengers and crew dead. But Keever says the turbulent waters the industry finds itself in – from Costa Concordia tragedy to the stranded and battered Triumph – could have a side-effect of drawing more public attention to the flipside of the postcard-perfect vacations it advertises.

With more and more cruise lines pointing their ships toward the pristine waters of the lower Arctic region and with greatly discounted rooms being offered as the industry tries to return from its recent missteps, the environmental pressures are building.

Following the Triumph disaster, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller launched an inquiry into the event and Carnival’s overall safety record. His probing brought to the public’s attention that many cruise corporations are structured as foreign corporations that pay little in U.S. taxes despite the amount they rely on services such as U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and local municipalities that maintain the ports and land facilities they use here.

According to a 2011 New York Times article, from 2005 to 2010, Carnival Corporation “paid total corporate taxes — federal, state, local and foreign — equal to only 1.1 percent of its cumulative $11.3 billion in profits.”

Sen. Rockefeller has pressed Carnival to pay the government’s nearly $780,000 tab for rescuing the Triumph. He also sought payback for rescuing another of its ships in 2010. Carnival initially inferred it would not, noting the “maritime tradition” that any ship helps another in time of need. But the company has since agreed to pay for the rescues and says it is pledging $300,000 to make safety improvements to its fleet.

“We hope these disasters push the industry to clean up its act and be a more open industry than it has been,” says Keever, adding that more transparency will make FOE’s report card an even stronger tool for consumers. “If people are going to take a cruise – which continues to be an affordable choice, especially for families, we want them to vote for the best operators with their pocketbooks.”


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California Law To Require Ships To Cut Pollution

California is about to become the first state to require shore power at its ports. A new law mandates at least half of a shipping line’s fleet to shut down their diesel engines and plug into shore-side electric power when they unload their cargo. It’s part of a larger effort to cut pollution at the state’s busiest ports, but costs have been a sticking point.

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Two ports, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, handle almost half of all of the consumer goods being shipped into the United States. Together, these two ports are also the single largest polluter in Southern California, a region famous for its smog.

NPR’s Kirk Siegler reports on a new California law that will soon require some of the largest diesel-guzzling ships to kill their engines and plug in to shore power at the docks.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Shipping is a dirty business and it’s hard to regulate. Ships register in distant countries, they burn dirty bunker fuel thousands of miles off the coasts. And when they get into port, these massive vessels that are four football fields long, can’t just shut down when they unload their cargo for three days. See, aboard its more floating city than ship, with plumbing systems, lights, computers, climate-controlled containers.

RENE MOILANEN: And typically they’re running their auxiliary engines that entire time. It’s essentially like leaving a car idling in front of your driveway.

SIEGLER: On a drizzly morning, Port of Long Beach environmental planner Renee Moilanen stands on the slippery deck of a small patrol boat; a humbling place beneath the 20-story high red cranes unloading cargo. She says requiring the vessel above us to shut off its diesel and plug into electricity is the emissions equivalent of taking 33,000 cars off the road for each day they do it.

MOILANEN: So if we can reduce those emissions occurring at berth, we can make significant progress in reducing health risks for the local community.

SIEGLER: Ship emissions are just one component though of a huge spectrum of environmental problems at the ports. And until recently, they’ve taken a backseat to bitter fights over pollution from all the trucks and trains that move the cargo out of here. But shore power is one big piece of a broader air quality plan; some of it, the ports have done voluntarily, some by court order, but all in response to the alarmingly high rates of asthma and cancer detected among people in the mostly poor, minority neighborhoods down wind of the two ports.

MAYOR BOB FOSTER: Years ago, when we were putting this plan in place, you know, I was quoted many times as saying, you know, we’re not going to have, you know, kids get asthma or cancer in our city, so that someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set.

SIEGLER: Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. His city owns some of the port, a huge economic engine for this region. But he straddles a fine line between port booster and public health advocate.

FOSTER: The ships are just sort of the last remaining big ticket item on pollution. I think this will – well, I know, this will be a much healthier environment. And we’ll still have a robust economy of really good jobs. I think this is the template for the rest of the world.

SIEGLER: But for now, California is the only government in the world to mandate shore power. And there are concerns the less-regulated East Coast ports could poach business once the Panama Canal is widened to accommodate larger vessels. Some shipping lines have grumbled about having to spend on average $1.5 million to retrofit their vessels, just to do business in one state.

It’s just the two cables that we’re looking at?

MOILANEN: Yeah. Yeah.


SIEGLER: Don’t over-think it.


SIEGLER: Back on the patrol boat, the port’s Renee Moilanen points out, what look like two giant extension cords. They plunge over the side of a vessel owned by the Matson Line. It was one of the first here to plug into shore power ahead of the mandate. The cables disappear under the wharf, which the port recently electrified.

MOILANEN: It looks far less impressive than it actually is. The technology and the engineering behind it is very complicated.

SIEGLER: And expensive, and just one step in the massive effort to clean up one of the largest sources of pollution in a region with some of the worst air in the country.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.