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California pressures EPA on sewage rules for ships

July 17, 2009 | 10:47 am


Ever wonder where the human waste from the hundreds of cruise ships entering California waters each year ends up?

Raw sewage can be dumped anywhere outside of three nautical miles from shore. But minimally treated waste can be dumped even closer.

Now, California legislators are nudging the Environmental Protection Agency forward on a measure that would tighten regulation on dumping human waste from cruise ships and other ocean-going vessels off California's coast.

In a letter submitted this week to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, members of Congress from California asked the federal agency to approve a 2006 state application to prevent dumping of any sewage from large ships within three nautical miles of the California coast.

A cruise ship discharges enough sewage every week to fill several swimming pools, said Marcie Keever, director of the clean vessels campaign for the San Francisco-based environmental group Friends of the Earth.

"Nearly 1.5 million passengers departed on cruise ships in California's waters last year, and with these numbers, as well as cruise ship sizes, on the rise, the threat to our oceans from ship discharges continues to grow," the letter stated.

Some cruise ship companies say they already adhere to standards even stricter than what California law outlines.

"The cruise industry is in full compliance with this law and, in fact, we discharge treated sewage only when we are four nautical miles from shore at speeds of 6 knots or greater," said Eric Ruff, a spokesman for Cruise Lines International Assn., in a written statement. "We exceed California's 3 nautical mile legal restriction."

The group represents 24 cruise lines, including Carnival.

"CLIA members do not discharge any sewage that is not treated," Ruff added.

But treatment of sewage may be minimal at best in some cases, environmentalists say, and there is no way to know for sure what a company is doing. Keever said technology on some of the ships is decades old, and some companies have used the ocean as a "dumping ground" with little regard for the health of wildlife and human recreation, tourism, and fishing.

She applauded the move by California legislators to pressure the EPA.

"It brings attention to the issue and continues to shine light on an industry that has had very little regulation up until now," Keever said.

The move follows measures by state and national bodies two weeks ago to regulate harmful shipping emissions.

--Amy Littlefield

Photo: The cruise ship Paradise rests next to the tall ship American Pride in Long Beach Harbor. Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times