Sewage flushed off Whidbey

Environmentalists say an incident in which a cruise ship accidentally dumped more than 16,400 gallons of raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, about four nautical miles off Whidbey, has revealed holes in laws governing an increasingly popular industry in Puget Sound.

Last Saturday, the captain of a Norwegian Cruise Line ship reported to the Coast Guard and the Department of Ecology that an engineer accidentally released 50 tons of “black water” into the sound.

The accident wasn’t reported to residents, but only became public after Fred Felleman with the group Ocean Advocates made a Freedom of Information Act request. He said his group was concerned about the Port of Seattle’s new cruise line terminal and lobbied unsuccessfully for the port to enact regulations about cruise ships’ dumping of sewage into the sound.

Felleman said he made the request for information just as the cruise season started and was shocked to learn there was already an incident. The port is estimated to see more than 100 cruise ship calls and about 400,000 passengers during this season.

“If I lived on Whidbey Island and liked to eat shellfish,” he said, “I would be darn concerned.” In addition to human waste, Felleman said “black water” may contain chemicals from on-board photo processing, dry cleaning and oily chemicals.

Felleman and officials from other environmental groups say the incident points out that there is a need for national laws regulating the cruise line industry and the dumping of sewage.

Susan Berta of the Whidbey Island-based Orca Network agrees. “It’s very disturbing when orcas, gray whales, porpoises and other marine mammals are living out there,” she said. She noted that the dumping coincided with the recent controversy over the Navy blasting J-pod orcas with sonar.

“The orcas don’t need one more impact on them and their environment, that’s for sure,” she said.

The story of the sewage dumping off Whidbey’s Fort Ebey State Park has made national news, even appearing on CNN.

According to a media statement from Norwegian Cruise Line, “the company maintains close communication with the Coast Guard over environmental and safety matters and reports rare incidents of internal policy violations such as this to the Coast Guard even when no other rules and regulations were violated.”

The company claims that its internal policies already “greatly exceed the existing laws and international conventions” regarding water pollution.

“NCL has invested heavily not just on new environmental protection technology but also on a shore side department devoted to environmental protection and has placed trained environmental officers onboard every NCL ship,” the press release states. “NCL has also undertaken environmental training for all of crewmembers.”

Larry Altose, the spokesman for the Department of Ecology, agrees that the cruise line was very prompt and cooperative in reporting the accident, but he said no officials actually went out to the area of the dumping. He said the Department of Ecology has no resources — as in boats — to deal with such cases. He said officials with the Coast Guard, which has the lead in handling things like oil spills, immediately reported that it didn’t have any jurisdiction over the accidental dumping.

Under national law, Altose said dumping of untreated sewage is allowed more than three miles off shore. But Altose said the state has asked the Coast Guard, which can enforce the Clean Water Act, to reconsider the decision based on the argument that Puget Sound is “territorial waters” within the boundaries of the nation.

“The Coast Guard’s legal eagles are still sorting out what their jurisdiction is,” he said Friday. “There are complex, sometimes overlapping laws.”

Altose said the Department of Ecology did not alert the public about sewage dumping because department experts felt there was no danger to the public. He said the sewage was discharged far from shore in an area of strong current. The pollution, he said, would rapidly disperse.

In the meantime, Altose said the state Department of Ecology is investigating the case to see if the cruise line violated the Water Pollution Control Act, the state’s version of the federal Clean Water Act. He said inspectors are boarding the vessel to investigate when it comes back to Seattle this weekend.

Altose said the cruise line could face possible civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation per day.

Altose agrees with Felleman that the state has “limited tools” in dealing with such cases. “Under Washington law, we have no specific authority cruise lines,” he said.

Felleman said the pollution from the cruise ship industry is a much greater concern than most people realize. He said that Norwegian Cruise Line and just about every other major cruise ship company are “convicted felons” when it comes to violating the Alaska’s environmental laws. In 2001, for example, Norwegian Cruise Line was fined over $27,000 for environmental violations in Alaska.

Felleman said ongoing pollution controversies could sour some people, especially those looking for eco-friendly experiences, to cruise ship experiences.

“Ultimately, it would be in the cruise ship industry’s best interest,” he said, “to have national laws regarding cruise ships and pollution.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 26
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates