The cruise industry screws up and we pay the price

The Carnival Triumph’s “cruise from hell”…the tragic capsizing of the Costa Concordia in Italian waters…the Shell oil rig that ran aground on a small island south of Kodiak, Alaska…

…there hasn’t been a lot of good news in the last few months for the cruise and shipping industries. In fact, the rash of accidents and cruise ship horror stories has cast a spotlight on the safety and environmental practices of cruise ships and other ocean-going vessels around the world.

It’s no secret that the cruise and shipping industries are some of the biggest polluters around. For several years, Friends of the Earth has been rating cruise ships on their air and water pollution footprints, exposing the dirty practices behind those luxury vacations.

But there’s another dirty little secret behind the cruise industry’s success: according to a New York Times report by David Leonhardt:

“Over the last five years, the company [Carnival] has paid total corporate taxes — federal, state, local and foreign — equal to only 1.1 percent of its cumulative $11.3 billion in profits.”

In the wake of the Carnival Triumph disaster, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV expressed his concern about the cruise ship industry as a whole, saying, “It is time that the cruise line industry — which earns more than $25 billion a year — pays for the costs they impose on the government since it’s the Coast Guard that comes to the rescue every single time something goes wrong on a cruise ship.”

The entire cruise industry depends on a series of legal and tax loopholes to keep its profits flowing…and to keep you and me subsidizing their dirty industry.

And that’s not the only price we pay. We’re also paying far too high a price from the industry’s water and air pollution.

Friends of the Earth’s 2012 Cruise Ship Report Card ranks 15 major cruise lines and 148 cruise ships for their air and water pollution footprints. And although we handed out the first-ever ‘A’ grade, the biggest takeaway from this year’s report card is that many cruise lines continue to make halfhearted or zero effort to reduce their air and water pollution impacts.

Indeed, the Carnival Triumph — the ship that lost power off the Yucatan peninsula, stranding passengers for days aboard a foundering ship — received ‘F’s’ across the board on Friends of the Earth’s report card.

Although it may take a year or more to determine the exact cause of the fire on the Carnival Triumph, the cruise line is notorious for neglecting environmental upgrades like adding the capability to plug in to shorepower when docked. In fact, our report card found that only 23 out of 148 ships have made that upgrade, which could save lives each year by eliminating the air pollution ships emit when generating power using dirty heavy fuel oil.

And shorepower is just one of the ways the cruise industry should clean up their operations. They dump dirty wastewater and pump air pollutants into the environment threatening both marine and human populations. They use dirty, bottom-of-the-barrel bunker fuel, which, when burned, produces tiny particles that degrade air quality and cause illnesses like asthma and lung cancer.

Local communities are taking action. California has banned bunker fuel and instituted a No Discharge Zone in coastal waters. In Charleston, SC, a debate rages over whether to build a new ship terminal that could increase the frequency of cruise ships visiting the historic city in addition to the tripling of cruise ship trips the city has seen since 2009. And voters in Key West, FL are considering whether to approve the widening of a channel to the city’s ports to accommodate new, larger cruise ships.

Unfortunately, the powerful cruise ship industry is not going down without a fight. Alaskan lawmakers bowed to pressure from the cruise ship industry, recently approving a measure that would override wastewater standards for cruise ships that Alaskans approved in 2006.

As the cruise industry continues to grow, the onus is on local communities to understand the truth about the cruise ships docking in their midst. They cannot afford to take the cruise ship industry’s word that it will behave or assume strong regulations are in place to govern their pollution streams.

And the cruise industry isn’t the only one gaming the system. After the Shell oil rig ran aground, reports emerged that Shell had originally rushed the rig through dangerous weather in an attempt to avoid paying millions in state taxes to Alaska, which it would have owed the state if the rig had remained in Alaskan waters through January 1.

It’s time for all of us to take a hard look at the shipping industry. The damage they cause to our environment, to public health, and to our public coffers is untenable.

Photo: Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew as they deliver approximately 3,000 pounds of equipment, which included a generator and electrical cables, from the offshore supply vessel Lana Rose to the Carnival Cruise Ship Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico,on February 13, 2013. Credit: AFP PHOTO / US COAST GUARD/PAUL MCCONNELL.

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