February 26, 2013

What is gross negligence?

That is the question as BP begins its defense in a civil trial for 11 deaths and a four million barrel oil spill into the Gulf in 2010.

But other recent disasters should also focus on gross negligence. The captains of Carnival Cruise Line's Triumph and Costa Concordia come to mind when it comes to looking the other way regarding their ships' condition. One captain literally looked the other way as he managed to land the Costa Concordia on a reef, and many died. The other ship captain did not take a litany of mechanical shortcomings seriously and his company faces a lawsuit after the Triumph made "poopdeck" a reality for its passengers and crew.

There are more than 230 cruise ships operating worldwide. Some are "floating cities" with 5000 passengers or more. However, the $35 billion cruise ship industry has little oversight to guarantee the safety of 20 million passengers (the majority being Americans) and thousands of crew members every time a ship leaves a dock. No maritime equivalent of the airline industry's FAA keep ships docked when there is a serious problem. There is a patchwork of federal, state and rarely, local laws and most cruise ships fly Bahamas or Panama flags. Profits before safety looks like the rule.

14 new cruise ships will join the fleet in 2014 and the number of passengers is expected to increase by as much as 8 percent.

The Clean Cruise Ship Act died in Congress in 2010. And state legislators are now adding to the problem. Alaska state lawmakers rolled back tough wastewater standards mandated by voters in 2006 and will allow the 36 cruise ships that travel Alaska’s waters each year to discharge wastewater with less treatment than it currently receives.

Few cruise ship passengers worry too much about the impact their vacations have on local communities. I was most likely the only one on a recent Windstar cruise through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific coast of Costa Rica who asked the captain about the food waste and holding tanks. I was assured that they are collected onboard and safely disposed of on shore. Hmmm. Another Windstar captain a few years ago around the Greek Isles and Turkey told me they discharged in the Mediterranean. No wonder we saw few fish when we had snorkeled there, prior to his bit of news.

That should put more responsibility on local communities that host cruise ships, especially in areas with pristine waters. Mobile and Norfolk are among the cities that have expensive terminals for cruise ships, only to see their terminals later lose business. This is one reason that Mobile was glad to see the Triumph limp into their port. Carnival has only one cruise ship that now departs to the Bahamas from Norfolk. And the residents of Charleston, SC aretone debating the expansion of their city's megadock to permit larger ships.

Few passengers think about the waste streams generated by cruise ships: bilge water that collects in the lowest part of the ship’s hull and may contain oil and grease; sewage; gray water from showers, sinks, laundries and kitchens; ballast water (water taken onboard or discharged from a vessel to maintain its stability); and solid waste (food waste and garbage). But perhaps after the vivid photos of the Triumph, they will.

EPA is assessing the need for additional standards for sewage and graywater discharges from large cruise ships operating in Alaska. But, pun intended, they sometimes operate at glacial speed.