On April 19 the Carnival Corporation pleaded guilty in United States District Court in Miami to criminal charges related to falsifying records of the oil-contaminated bilge water that six of its ships dumped into the sea from 1996 through 2001.
A lengthy investigation by more than a half-dozen agencies, from the Coast Guard to the Environmental Protection Agency, found that Carnival engineers circumvented the 1980 Federal Act to Prevent Pollution From Ships by intentionally flushing clean water instead of bilge water past the sensors of oil content meters, which are required on all ships and are designed to register the oil content in the bilge waste. That tricked the meters into measuring the oil in the clean water instead of in the bilge waste, which was dumped, unfiltered, into the sea.
The Carnival Corporation was ordered to pay $18 million in fines and perform community service, received five years' probation and must submit to a court-supervised worldwide environmental-compliance program for each of its cruise ships.
Carnival, the parent company of Carnival Cruise Line as well as Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Seabourn Cruise Line and Windstar Cruises, is not alone in violating environmental rules aimed at the cruise industry. In 1999, for example, Royal Caribbean pleaded guilty to 21 felony violations of federal law for having rigged the pipes on its ships in order to bypass pollution equipment. It also admitted that it illegally discharged dry-cleaning chemicals and other toxic wastes into the waters off Alaska, Puerto Rico and Florida.
In recent months, several environmental groups have raised other issues with the cruise industry. Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based organization that works to protect the oceans, released a report last month accusing the industry of generating more than 400 million pounds of waste annually, and dumping much of it into the ocean. And on April 24, a coalition of four West Coast environmental organizations -- the Bluewater Network, the Environmental Law Foundation, San Diego Baykeeper and the Surfrider Foundation -- filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court to force Carnival Corporation (including its Holland America subsidiary), Royal Caribbean and P & O Princess Cruises to comply with the 1999 California law that prohibits ships having left international waters from dumping ballast water within three miles of California's coast.
Ballast water -- sea water pumped into the bottom of ships to keep them stable at sea -- can contain aquatic animals and plants caught up in the process. These nonnative organisms can survive in the ballast tanks, said Hiram Sarabia, a scientist for the nonprofit San Diego Baykeeper, and if released into a foreign coastal environment can threaten native species.
The cruise lines named in the lawsuit have not yet responded, beyond saying that they do not comment on matters in litigation. But representatives of Carnival responded promptly to questions about its current and future compliance with the federal court's orders. A hot line required by the court so that employees or passengers can report suspected violations of environmental programs or of Carnival's compliance is already operating, a spokesman for Carnival said, ''and people can leave messages either identifying themselves or anonymously.''
James Wheaton, president of the Environmental Law Foundation, said that the coalition's charges had been documented in some 400 of the ballast reports that ships have been required to submit to California's State Lands Commission. He said the commission could impose administrative fines of its own, up to $5,000 per violation per day.
Teri Shore, director of the Bluewater Network's Clean Vessels campaign, which advocates cleaner ships and ferries, said, ''There are few federal laws that regulate cruise ships, and the ones that do are not very effective because enforcement is weak, penalties minimal and the cruise ships intentionally violate them in order to cut costs and feed profits.
''Federal law to prevent dumping of oily discharges is routinely ignored, as Carnival has shown,'' she said, ''and the federal ballast-water law is voluntary.''
Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, whose 16 members include Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess, disagrees that the laws are weakly enforced. ''Over the past few years two large cruise lines have been fined over $27 million and $18 million for presenting improperly maintained record books to federal authorities,'' he said. ''These are not minimal penalties, nor weak enforcement.''
Michael Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter, said that the publication asked two dozen travel agents shortly after the Carnival verdict whether there would be a negative impact on Carnival's business because of its guilty plea. Most of them said there would be little or none.
Felicia Kantor, the senior leisure analyst for Lehman Brothers, said that consumers don't seem to have much incentive to shun cruise lines for violating pollution regulations. ''It may be unfortunate, but at the end of the day a lot of people are thinking about where to go on vacation,'' she said, ''and cruise lines do offer a fairly reasonable and entertaining product.''
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