Cruise Ship Pollution: Background, Laws and Regulations, and Key Issues
Cruise Ship Pollution: Background,
Laws and Regulations, and Key Issues
Updated November 17, 2008
Specialist in Resource and Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Cruise Ship Pollution: Background,
Laws and Regulations, and Key Issues
The cruise industry is a significant and growing contributor to the U.S.
economy, providing more than $32 billion in benefits annually and generating more
than 330,000 U.S. jobs, but also making the environmental impacts of its activities
an issue to many. Although cruise ships represent a small fraction of the entire
shipping industry worldwide, public attention to their environmental impacts comes
in part from the fact that cruise ships are highly visible and in part because of the
industry’s desire to promote a positive image.
Cruise ships carrying several thousand passengers and crew have been compared
to “floating cities,” and the volume of wastes that they produce is comparably large,
consisting of sewage; wastewater from sinks, showers, and galleys (graywater);
hazardous wastes; solid waste; oily bilge water; ballast water; and air pollution. The
waste streams generated by cruise ships are governed by a number of international
protocols (especially MARPOL) and U.S. domestic laws (including the Clean Water
Act and the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships), regulations, and standards, but
there is no single law or rule. Some cruise ship waste streams appear to be well
regulated, such as solid wastes (garbage and plastics) and bilge water. But there is
overlap of some areas, and there are gaps in others. Some, such as graywater and
ballast water, are not regulated (except in the Great Lakes), and concern is increasing
about the impacts of these discharges on public health and the environment. In other
areas, regulations apply, but critics argue that they are not stringent enough to address
the problem — for example, with respect to standards for sewage discharges.
Environmental advocates have raised concerns about the adequacy of existing laws
for managing these wastes, and they contend that enforcement is weak.
In 2000, Congress enacted legislation restricting cruise ship discharges in U.S.
navigable waters within the state of Alaska. California, Alaska, and Maine have
enacted state-specific laws concerning cruise ship pollution, and a few other states
have entered into voluntary agreements with industry to address management of
cruise ship discharges. Meanwhile, the cruise industry has voluntarily undertaken
initiatives to improve pollution prevention, by adopting waste management
guidelines and procedures and researching new technologies. Concerns about cruise
ship pollution raise issues for Congress in three broad areas: adequacy of laws and
regulations, research needs, and oversight and enforcement of existing requirements.
Legislation to regulate cruise ship discharges of sewage, graywater, and bilge water
nationally was introduced in the 110th Congress (S. 2881).
This report describes the several types of waste streams that cruise ships may
discharge and emit. It identifies the complex body of international and domestic laws
that address pollution from cruise ships. It then describes federal and state legislative
activity concerning cruise ships in Alaskan waters and activities in a few other states,
as well as current industry initiatives to manage cruise ship pollution. Issues for
Congress are discussed.
In troduction ......................................................1
Cruise Ship Waste Streams..........................................3
Applicable Laws and Regulations.....................................7
International Legal Regime......................................7
Domestic Laws and Regulations..................................9
Considerations of Geographic Jurisdiction.....................17
Alaska State Legislation and Initiatives........................20
Other State Activities..........................................21
Issues for Congress...............................................24
Laws and Regulations.....................................24
Oversight and Enforcement.................................26
Cruise Ship Pollution: Background, Laws
and Regulations, and Key Issues
More than 46,000 commercial vessels — tankers, bulk carriers, container ships,
barges, and passenger ships — travel the oceans and other waters of the world,
carrying cargo and passengers for commerce, transport, and recreation. Their
activities are regulated and scrutinized in a number of respects by international
protocols and U.S. domestic laws, including those designed to protect against
discharges of pollutants that could harm marine resources, other parts of the ambient
environment, and human health. However, there are overlaps of some requirements,
gaps in other areas, geographic differences in jurisdiction based on differing
definitions, and questions about the adequacy of enforcement.
Public attention to the environmental impacts of the maritime industry has been
especially focused on the cruise industry, in part because its ships are highly visible
and in part because of the industry’s desire to promote a positive image. It represents
a relatively small fraction of the entire shipping industry worldwide. As of January
of the world shipping fleet.1 The cruise industry is a significant and growing
contributor to the U.S. economy, providing more than $32 billion in total benefits
annually and generating more than 330,000 U.S. jobs,2 but also making the
environmental impacts of its activities an issue to many. Since 1980, the average
annual growth rate in the number of cruise passengers worldwide has been 8.4%, and
in 2005, cruises hosted an estimated 11.5 million passengers. Cruises are especially
popular in the United States. In 2005, U.S. ports handled 8.6 million cruise
embarkations (75% of global passengers), 6.3% more than in 2004. The worldwide
cruise ship fleet consists of more than 230 ships, and the majority are foreign-3
flagged, with Liberia and Panama being the most popular flag countries. Foreign-
flag cruise vessels owned by six companies account for nearly 95% of passenger
ships operating in U.S. waters. Each year, the industry adds new ships to the total
fleet, vessels that are bigger, more elaborate and luxurious, and that carry larger
numbers of passengers and crew. Over the past two decades, the average ship size
has been increasing at the rate of roughly 90 feet every five years. The average ship
1 Lloyd’s Maritime Information Services, on the website of the Maritime International
Secretaries Services, Shipping and World Trade Facts, at [http://www.marisec.org/
2 International Council of Cruise Lines, “The Cruise Industry, 2005 Economic Summary.”
3 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Cruise Ship White Paper,” August 22, 2000, p.
entering the market from 2008 to 2011 will be more than 1,050 feet long and will
weigh more than 130,000 tons.4
To the cruise ship industry, a key issue is demonstrating to the public that
cruising is safe and healthy for passengers and the tourist communities that are
visited by their ships. Cruise ships carrying several thousand passengers and crew
have been compared to “floating cities,” in part because the volume of wastes
produced and requiring disposal is greater than that of many small cities on land.
During a typical one-week voyage, a large cruise ship (with 3,000 passengers and
crew) is estimated to generate 210,000 gallons of sewage; 1 million gallons of
graywater (wastewater from sinks, showers, and laundries); more than 130 gallons
of hazardous wastes; 8 tons of solid waste; and 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water.5
Those wastes, if not properly treated and disposed of, can pose risks to human health,
welfare, and the environment. Environmental advocates have raised concerns about
the adequacy of existing laws for managing these wastes, and suggest that
enforcement of existing laws is weak.
A 2000 General Accounting Office (GAO) report focused attention on problems
of cruise vessel compliance with environmental requirements.6 GAO found that
between 1993 and 1998, foreign-flag cruise ships were involved in 87 confirmed
illegal discharge cases in U.S. waters. A few of the cases included multiple illegal
discharge incidents occurring over the six-year period. GAO reviewed three major
waste streams (solids, hazardous chemicals, and oily bilge water) and concluded that
83% of the cases involved discharges of oil or oil-based products, the volumes of
which ranged from a few drops to hundreds of gallons. The balance of the cases
involved discharges of plastic or garbage. GAO judged that 72% of the illegal
discharges were accidental, 15% were intentional, and 13% could not be determined.
The 87 cruise ship cases represented 4% of the 2,400 illegal discharge cases by
foreign-flag ships (including tankers, cargo ships and other commercial vessels, as
well as cruise ships) confirmed during the six years studied by GAO. Although cruise
ships operating in U.S. waters have been involved in a relatively small number of
pollution cases, GAO said, several have been widely publicized and have led to
criminal prosecutions and multimillion-dollar fines.
In 2000, a coalition of 53 environmental advocacy groups petitioned the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take regulatory action to address7
pollution by cruise ships. The petition called for an investigation of wastewater, oil,
and solid waste discharges from cruise ships. In response, EPA agreed to study
4 Bell, Tom, “Experts: Mega-birth Needed for Cruise Ships,” Portland Press Herald,
September 28, 2007.
5 Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Department of Transportation, “Summary of Cruise
Ship Waste Streams.”
6 U.S. General Accounting Office, Marine Pollution: Progress Made to Reduce Marine
Pollution by Cruise Ships, but Important Issues Remain, GAO/RCED-00-48, February 2000.
7 Bluewater Network, Petition to the Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
March 17, 2000. The petition was amended in 2000 to request that EPA also examine air
pollution from cruise ships; see discussion below (page 16).
cruise ship discharges and waste management approaches. As part of that effort, in
2000 EPA issued a background document with preliminary information and
recommendations for further assessment through data collection and public
information hearings.8 Subsequently, in December 2007, the agency released a draft
cruise ship discharge assessment report as part of its response to the petition. This
report summarized findings of recent data collection activities (especially from cruise
ships operating in Alaskan waters). EPA expects to issue a completed report by the
end of 2008, and at that time will identify a range of options and alternatives to
address cruise ship waste streams.9
This report presents information on issues related to cruise ship pollution. It
begins by describing the several types of waste streams and contaminants that cruise
ships may generate and release. It identifies the complex body of international and
domestic laws that address pollution from cruise ships, as there is no single law in
this area. Some wastes are covered by international standards, some are subject to
U.S. law, and for some there are gaps in law, regulation, or possibly both. The report
then describes federal and state legislative activity concerning cruise ships in Alaskan
waters and recent activities in a few other states. Cruise ship companies have taken
a number of steps to prevent illegal waste discharges and have adopted waste
management plans and practices to improve their environmental operations.
Environmental critics acknowledge these initiatives, even as they have petitioned the
federal government to strengthen existing regulation of cruise ship wastes.
Environmental groups endorsed companion bills in the 109th Congress (the Clean
Cruise Ship Act, S. 793/H.R. 1636) that would have required stricter standards to
control wastewater discharges from cruise ships. Congress did not act on either bill,
nor did it act on similar legislation that was introduced in the 110th Congress (S.
Cruise Ship Waste Streams
Cruise ships generate a number of waste streams that can result in discharges
to the marine environment, including sewage, graywater, hazardous wastes, oily bilge
water, ballast water, and solid waste. They also emit air pollutants to the air and
water. These wastes, if not properly treated and disposed of, can be a significant
source of pathogens, nutrients, and toxic substances with the potential to threaten
human health and damage aquatic life. It is important, however, to keep these
discharges in some perspective, because cruise ships represent a small — although
highly visible — portion of the entire international shipping industry, and the waste
streams described here are not unique to cruise ships. However, particular types of
wastes, such as sewage, graywater, and solid waste, may be of greater concern for
cruise ships relative to other seagoing vessels, because of the large numbers of
8 EPA White Paper.
9 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, “Draft Cruise Ship Discharge
Assessment Report,” EPA842-R-07-005, December 2007. Hereafter, EPA Draft Discharge
Assessment Report. See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Draft Cruise Ship
Discharge Assessment Report, Notice of availability and request for public comments,”
Federal Register, vol. 72, no. 244, December 20, 2007, p. 72353.
passengers and crew that cruise ships carry and the large volumes of wastes that they
produce. Further, because cruise ships tend to concentrate their activities in specific
coastal areas and visit the same ports repeatedly (especially Florida, California, New
York, Galveston, Seattle, and the waters of Alaska), their cumulative impact on a
local scale could be significant, as can impacts of individual large-volume releases
(either accidental or intentional).
Blackwater is sewage, wastewater from toilets and medical facilities, which can
contain harmful bacteria, pathogens, diseases, viruses, intestinal parasites, and
harmful nutrients. Discharges of untreated or inadequately treated sewage can cause
bacterial and viral contamination of fisheries and shellfish beds, producing risks to
public health. Nutrients in sewage, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, promote
excessive algal growth, which consumes oxygen in the water and can lead to fish
kills and destruction of other aquatic life. A large cruise ship (3,000 passengers and10
crew) generates an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 gallons per day of blackwater waste.
Graywater is wastewater from the sinks, showers, galleys, laundry, and
cleaning activities aboard a ship. It can contain a variety of pollutant substances,
including fecal coliform bacteria, detergents, oil and grease, metals, organics,
petroleum hydrocarbons, nutrients, food waste, and medical and dental waste.
Sampling done by EPA and the state of Alaska found that untreated graywater from
cruise ships can contain pollutants at variable strengths and that it can contain levels
of fecal coliform bacteria several times greater than is typically found in untreated
domestic wastewater.11 Graywater has potential to cause adverse environmental
effects because of concentrations of nutrients and other oxygen-demanding materials,
in particular. Graywater is typically the largest source of liquid waste generated by
cruise ships (90%-95% of the total). Estimates of graywater range from 30 to 85
gallons per day per person, or 90,000 to 255,000 gallons per day for a 3,000-person
Solid waste generated on a ship includes glass, paper, cardboard, aluminum and
steel cans, and plastics. It can be either non-hazardous or hazardous in nature. Solid
waste that enters the ocean may become marine debris, and it can then pose a threat
to marine organisms, humans, coastal communities, and industries that utilize marine
waters. Cruise ships typically manage solid waste by a combination of source
reduction, waste minimization, and recycling. However, as much as 75% of solid
waste is incinerated on board, and the ash typically is discharged at sea, although
some is landed ashore for disposal or recycling. Marine mammals, fish, sea turtles,
and birds can be injured or killed from entanglement with plastics and other solid
waste that may be released or disposed off of cruise ships. On average, each cruise
ship passenger generates at least two pounds of non-hazardous solid waste per day
10 The Ocean Conservancy, “Cruise Control, A Report on How Cruise Ships Affect the
Marine Environment,” May 2002, p. 13. Hereafter, “Cruise Control.”
11 EPA Draft Discharge Assessment Report, pp. 3-5 - 3-6.
12 Cruise Control, p. 15.
and disposes of two bottles and two cans.13 With large cruise ships carrying several
thousand passengers, the amount of waste generated in a day can be massive. For a
large cruise ship, about 8 tons of solid waste are generated during a one-week
cruise.14 It has been estimated that 24% of the solid waste generated by vessels
worldwide (by weight) comes from cruise ships.15 Most cruise ship garbage is treated
on board (incinerated, pulped, or ground up) for discharge overboard. When garbage
must be off-loaded (for example, because glass and aluminum cannot be incinerated),
cruise ships can put a strain on port reception facilities, which are rarely adequate to
the task of serving a large passenger vessel (especially at non-North American
Cruise ships produce hazardous wastes from a number of on-board activities
and processes, including photo processing, dry-cleaning, and equipment cleaning.
Types of waste include discarded and expired chemicals, medical waste, batteries,
fluorescent lights, and spent paints and thinners, among others. These materials
contain a wide range of substances such as hydrocarbons, chlorinated hydrocarbons,
heavy metals, paint waste, solvents, fluorescent and mercury vapor light bulbs,
various types of batteries, and unused or outdated pharmaceuticals. Although the
quantities of hazardous waste generated on cruise ships are small, their toxicity to
sensitive marine organisms can be significant. Without careful management, these
wastes can find their way into graywater, bilge water, or the solid waste stream.
On a ship, oil often leaks from engine and machinery spaces or from engine
maintenance activities and mixes with water in the bilge, the lowest part of the hull
of the ship. Oil, gasoline, and byproducts from the biological breakdown of
petroleum products can harm fish and wildlife and pose threats to human health if
ingested. Oil in even minute concentrations can kill fish or have various sub-lethal
chronic effects. Bilge water also may contain solid wastes and pollutants containing
high amounts of oxygen-demanding material, oil and other chemicals. A typical
large cruise ship will generate an average of 8 metric tons of oily bilge water for each
24 hours of operation.17 To maintain ship stability and eliminate potentially
hazardous conditions from oil vapors in these areas, the bilge spaces need to be
flushed and periodically pumped dry. However, before a bilge can be cleared out and
the water discharged, the oil that has been accumulated needs to be extracted from
13 The Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, “A Shifting Tide, Environmental
Challenges and Cruise Industry Responses,” p. 14. Hereafter, “Shifting Tide.”
14 Bluewater Network, “Cruising for Trouble: Stemming the Tide of Cruise Ship Pollution,”
March 2000, p. 5. Hereafter, “Cruising for Trouble.” A report prepared for an industry
group estimated that a 3,000-person cruise ship generates 1.1 million gallons of graywater
during a seven-day cruise. Don K. Kim, “Cruise Ship Waste Dispersion Analysis Report
on the Analysis of Graywater Discharge,” presented to the International Council of Cruise
Lines, September 14, 2000.
15 National Research Council, Committee on Shipboard Wastes, Clean Ships, Clean Ports,
Clean Oceans: Controlling Garbage and Plastic Wastes at Sea (National Academy Press,
16 Ibid., p. 126.
17 “Shifting Tide,” p. 16.
the bilge water, after which the extracted oil can be reused, incinerated, and/or off-
loaded in port. If a separator, which is normally used to extract the oil, is faulty or
is deliberately bypassed, untreated oily bilge water could be discharged directly into
the ocean, where it can damage marine life. A number of cruise lines have been
charged with environmental violations related to this issue in recent years.
Cruise ships, large tankers, and bulk cargo carriers use a tremendous amount of
ballast water to stabilize the vessel during transport. Ballast water is often taken on
in the coastal waters in one region after ships discharge wastewater or unload cargo,
and discharged at the next port of call, wherever more cargo is loaded, which reduces
the need for compensating ballast. Thus, it is essential to the proper functioning of
ships (especially cargo ships), because the water that is taken in compensates for
changes in the ship’s weight as cargo is loaded or unloaded, and as fuel and supplies
are consumed. However, ballast water discharge typically contains a variety of
biological materials, including plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria. These materials
often include non-native, nuisance, exotic species that can cause extensive ecological
and economic damage to aquatic ecosystems. Ballast water discharges are believed
to be the leading source of invasive species in U.S. marine waters, thus posing public
health and environmental risks, as well as significant economic cost to industries
such as water and power utilities, commercial and recreational fisheries, agriculture,18
and tourism. Studies suggest that the economic cost just from introduction of pest
mollusks (zebra mussels, the Asian clam, and others) to U.S. aquatic ecosystems is19
more than $6 billion per year. These problems are not limited to cruise ships, but
there is little cruise-industry specific data on the issue, and further study is needed to
determine cruise ships’ role in the overall problem of introduction of non-native
species by vessels.
Air pollution from cruise ships is generated by diesel engines that burn high
sulfur content fuel, producing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter,
in addition to carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons. Diesel exhaust
has been classified by EPA as a likely human carcinogen. EPA recognizes that these
emissions from marine diesel engines contribute to ozone and carbon monoxide
nonattainment (i.e., failure to meet air quality standards), as well as adverse health
effects associated with ambient concentrations of particulate matter and visibility,
haze, acid deposition, and eutrophication and nitrophication of water.20 EPA
estimates that large marine diesel engines accounted for about 1.6% of mobile source
nitrogen oxide emissions and 2.8% of mobile source particulate emissions in the
United States in 2000. Contributions of marine diesel engines can be higher on a
18 Statement of Catherine Hazelwood, The Ocean Conservancy, “Ballast Water
Management: New International Standards and NISA Reauthorization,” Hearing, House
Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment,thnd
19 David Pimentel, Lori Lach, Rodolfo Zuniga, and Doug Morrison, “Environmental and
Economic Costs Associated with Non-indigenous Species in the United States,” presented
at AAAS Conference, Anaheim, CA, January 24, 1999.
20 68 Federal Register 9751, 9753, February 28, 2003.
One source of environmental pressures on maritime vessels recently has come
from states and localities, as they assess the contribution of commercial marine
vessels to regional air quality problems when ships are docked in port. For instance,
large marine diesel engines are believed to contribute 7% of mobile source nitrogen
oxide emissions in Baton Rouge/New Orleans. Ships can also have a significant
impact in areas without large commercial ports: they contribute about 37% of total
area nitrogen oxide emissions in the Santa Barbara area, and that percentage is
expected to increase to 61% by the year 2015.21 Again, there is little cruise-industry
specific data on this issue. They comprise only a small fraction of the world shipping
fleet, but cruise ship emissions may exert significant impacts on a local scale in
specific coastal areas that are visited repeatedly. Shipboard incinerators also burn
large volumes of garbage, plastics, and other waste, producing ash that must be
disposed of. Incinerators may release toxic emissions as well.
Applicable Laws and Regulations
The several waste streams generated by cruise ships are governed by a number
of international protocols and U.S. domestic laws, regulations and standards, which
are described in this section, but there is no single law or regulation. Moreover, there
are overlaps in some areas of coverage, gaps in other areas, and differences in
geographic jurisdiction, based on applicable terms and definitions.
International Legal Regime
The International Maritime Organization (IMO), a body of the United Nations,
sets international maritime vessel safety and marine pollution standards. It consists
of representatives from 152 major maritime nations, including the United States. The
IMO implements the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution
from Ships, as modified by the Protocol of 1978, known as MARPOL 73/78. Cruise
ships flagged under countries that are signatories to MARPOL are subject to its
requirements, regardless of where they sail, and member nations are responsible for
vessels registered under their respective nationalities.22 Six Annexes of the
Convention cover the various sources of pollution from ships and provide an
overarching framework for international objectives, but they are not sufficient alone
to protect the marine environment from waste discharges, without ratification and
implementation by sovereign states.
!Annex I deals with regulations for the prevention of pollution by oil.
!Annex II details the discharge criteria and measures for the control
of pollution by noxious liquid substances carried in bulk.
21 Ibid., pp. 9751, 9756.
22 The majority of cruise ships are foreign-flagged, primarily in Liberia and Panama. Both
of these countries have ratified all six of the MARPOL annexes. For information, see
[ h t t p : / / www.i mo.or g/ ] .
!Annex III contains general requirements for issuing standards on
packing, marking, labeling, and notifications for preventing
pollution by harmful substances.
!Annex IV contains requirements to control pollution of the sea by
!Annex V deals with different types of garbage, including plastics,
and specifies the distances from land and the manner in which they
may be disposed of.
!Annex VI sets limits on sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and other
emissions from marine vessel operations and prohibits deliberate
emissions of ozone-depleting substances.
In order for IMO standards to be binding, they must first be ratified by a total
number of member countries whose combined gross tonnage represents at least 50%
of the world’s gross tonnage, a process that can be lengthy. All six have been ratified
by the requisite number of nations; the most recent is Annex VI, which took effect
in May 2005. The United States has ratified Annexes I, II, III, and V, and the U.S.
Senate also has acceded to the treaty ratifying Annex VI. The United States has
taken no action regarding Annex IV. The country where a ship is registered (flag
state) is responsible for certifying the ship’s compliance with MARPOL’s pollution
prevention standards. IMO also has established a large number of other conventions,
addressing issues such as ballast water management, and the International Safety
Management Code, with guidelines for passenger safety and pollution prevention.
Each signatory nation is responsible for enacting domestic laws to implement
the convention and effectively pledges to comply with the convention, annexes, and
related laws of other nations. In the United States, the Act to Prevent Pollution from
Ships (APPS, 33 U.S.C. §§1905-1915) implements the provisions of MARPOL and
the annexes to which the United States is a party. The most recent U.S. action
concerning MARPOL occurred in April 2006, when the Senate approved Annex VI,
which regulates air pollution (Treaty Doc. 108-7, Exec. Rept. 109-13). Following
that approval, in March 2007, the House approved legislation to implement the
standards in Annex VI (H.R. 802), through regulations to be promulgated by EPA in
consultation with the U.S. Coast Guard. In July 2008, Congress gave final approval
to an amended version of H.R. 802, different from the provision approved by the
House in March 2007. President Bush signed the bill on July 21 (P.L. 110-280).
Negotiations to strengthen MARPOL Annex VI also are underway, and the United
States has participated in these international discussions.23
APPS applies to all U.S.-flagged ships anywhere in the world and to all foreign-
flagged vessels operating in navigable waters of the United States or while at port
under U.S. jurisdiction. The Coast Guard has primary responsibility to prescribe and
enforce regulations necessary to implement APPS in these waters. The regulatory
mechanism established in APPS to implement MARPOL is separate and distinct
from the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws.
23 For additional information, see CRS Report RL34548, Air Pollution from Ships:
MARPOL Annex VI and Other Control Options, by James E. McCarthy.
One of the difficulties in implementing MARPOL arises from the very
international nature of maritime shipping. The country that the ship visits can
conduct its own examination to verify a ship’s compliance with international
standards and can detain the ship if it finds significant noncompliance. Under the
provisions of the Convention, the United States can take direct enforcement action
under U.S. laws against foreign-flagged ships when pollution discharge incidents
occur within U.S. jurisdiction. When incidents occur outside U.S. jurisdiction or
jurisdiction cannot be determined, the United States refers cases to flag states, in
accordance with MARPOL. The 2000 GAO report documented that these
procedures require substantial coordination between the Coast Guard, the State
Department, and other flag states and that, even when referrals have been made, the
response rate from flag states has been poor.24
Domestic Laws and Regulations
In the United States, several federal agencies have some jurisdiction over cruise
ships in U.S. waters, but no one agency is responsible for or coordinates all of the
relevant government functions. The U.S. Coast Guard and EPA have principal
regulatory and standard-setting responsibilities, and the Department of Justice
prosecutes violations of federal laws. In addition, the Department of State represents
the United States at meetings of the IMO and in international treaty negotiations and
is responsible for pursuing foreign-flag violations. Other federal agencies have
limited roles and responsibilities. For example, the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, Department of Commerce) works with the
Coast Guard and EPA to report on the effects of marine debris. The Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for ensuring quarantine inspection
and disposal of food-contaminated garbage (these APHIS responsibilities are part of
the Department of Homeland Security). In some cases, states and localities have
responsibilities as well. This section describes U.S. laws and regulations that apply
to cruise ship discharges.
Sewage. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, or Clean Water Act
(CWA), is the principal U.S. law concerned with limiting polluting activity in the
nation’s streams, lakes, estuaries, and coastal waters. The act’s primary mechanism
for controlling pollutant discharges is the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination
System (NPDES) program, authorized in Section 402. In accordance with the
NPDES program, pollutant discharges from point sources — a term that includes
vessels — are prohibited unless a permit has been obtained. While sewage is defined
as a pollutant under the act, sewage from cruise ships and other vessels is exempt
from this statutory definition and is therefore exempt from the requirement to obtain
an NPDES permit. Further, EPA regulations implementing the NPDES permit
program provide that “discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels” are
excluded from regulation and thus from permit requirements (40 C.F.R. §122.3(a)).
However, a 2006 federal court ruling could result in changes to these regulations that
would remove the current permitting exemption (see discussion of “Ballast Water”
on page 14).
24 2000 GAO Report, pp. 19-21.
Marine Sanitation Devices. Section 312 of the Clean Water Act seeks to
address this gap by prohibiting the dumping of untreated or inadequately treated
sewage from vessels into the navigable waters of the United States (defined in the act
as within 3 miles of shore). Cruise ships are subject to this prohibition. It is
implemented jointly by EPA and the Coast Guard. Under Section 312, commercial
and recreational vessels with installed toilets are required to have marine sanitation
devices (MSDs), which are designed to prevent the discharge of untreated sewage.
EPA is responsible for developing performance standards for MSDs, and the Coast
Guard is responsible for MSD design and operation regulations and for certifying
MSD compliance with the EPA rules. MSDs are designed either to hold sewage for
shore-based disposal or to treat sewage prior to discharge. Beyond 3 miles, raw
sewage can be discharged.
The Coast Guard regulations cover three types of MSDs (33 CFR Part 159).
Large vessels, including cruise ships, use either Type II or Type III MSDs. In Type
II MSDs, the waste is either chemically or biologically treated prior to discharge and
must meet limits of no more than 200 fecal coliform per 100 milliliters and no more
than 150 milligrams per liter of suspended solids. Type III MSDs store wastes and
do not treat them; the waste is pumped out later and treated in an onshore system or
discharged outside U.S. waters. Type I MSDs use chemicals to disinfect the raw
sewage prior to discharge and must meet a performance standard for fecal coliform
bacteria of not greater than 1,000 per 100 milliliters and no visible floating solids.
Type I MSDs are generally only found on recreational vessels or others under 65 feet
in length. The regulations, which have not been revised since 1976, do not require
ship operators to sample, monitor, or report on their effluent discharges.
Critics point out a number of deficiencies with this regulatory structure as it
affects cruise ships and other large vessels. First, the MSD regulations only cover
discharges of bacterial contaminants and suspended solids, while the NPDES permit
program for other point sources typically regulates many more pollutants such as
chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, oil, and grease that may be released by cruise
ships as well as land-based sources. Second, sources subject to NPDES permits must
comply with sampling, monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements, which
do not exist in the MSD rules.
In addition, the Coast Guard, responsible for inspecting cruise ships and other
vessels for compliance with the MSD rules, has been heavily criticized for poor
enforcement of Section 312 requirements. In its 2000 report, the GAO said that Coast
Guard inspectors “rarely have time during scheduled ship examinations to inspect
sewage treatment equipment or filter systems to see if they are working properly and
filtering out potentially harmful contaminants.” GAO reported that a number of
factors limit the ability of Coast Guard inspectors to detect violations of
environmental law and rules, including the inspectors’ focus on safety, the large size
of a cruise ship, limited time and staff for inspections, and the lack of an element of25
surprise concerning inspections. The Coast Guard carries out a wide range of
responsibilities that encompass both homeland security (ports, waterways, and
coastal security, defense readiness, drug and migrant interdiction) and non-homeland
25 2000 GAO Report, pp. 34-35, 13.
security (search and rescue, marine environmental protection, fisheries enforcement,
aids to navigation). Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the
Coast Guard has focused more of its resources on homeland security activities.26 One
likely result is that less of the Coast Guard’s time and attention are available for
vessel inspections for MSD or other environmental compliance.
Annex IV of MARPOL was drafted to regulate sewage discharges from vessels.
It has entered into force internationally and would apply to cruise ships that are
flagged in ratifying countries, but because the United States has not ratified Annex
IV, it is not mandatory that ships follow it when in U.S. waters. However, its
requirements are minimal, even compared with U.S. rules for MSDs. Annex IV
requires that vessels be equipped with a certified sewage treatment system or holding
tank, but it prescribes no specific performance standards. Within three miles of
shore, Annex IV requires that sewage discharges be treated by a certified MSD prior
to discharge. Between three and 12 miles from shore, sewage discharges must be
treated by no less than maceration or chlorination; sewage discharges beyond 12
miles from shore are unrestricted. Vessels are permitted to meet alternative, less
stringent requirements when they are in the jurisdiction of countries where less
stringent requirements apply. In U.S. waters, cruise ships and other vessels must
comply with the regulations implementing Section 312 of the Clean Water Act.
On some cruise ships, especially many of those that travel in Alaskan waters,
sewage is treated using Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) systems that
generally provide improved screening, treatment, disinfection, and sludge processing
as compared with traditional Type II MSDs. AWTs are believed to be very effective
in removing pathogens, oxygen demanding substances, suspended solids, oil and
grease, and particulate metals from sewage, but only moderately effective in
removing dissolved metals and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous).27
No Discharge Zones. Section 312 has another means of addressing sewage
discharges, through establishment of no-discharge zones (NDZs) for vessel sewage.
A state may completely prohibit the discharge of both treated and untreated sewage
from all vessels with installed toilets into some or all waters over which it has
jurisdiction (up to 3 miles from land). To create a no-discharge zone to protect
waters from sewage discharges by cruise ships and other vessels, the state must apply
to EPA under one of three categories.
!NDZ based on the need for greater environmental protection, and the
state demonstrates that adequate pumpout facilities for safe and
sanitary removal and treatment of sewage from all vessels are
reasonably available. As of 2008, this category of designation has
been used for 61 areas representing part or all of the waters of 26
states, including a number of inland states.
26 The Homeland Security Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-296) transferred the entirety of the Coast
Guard from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security. For
discussion, see archived CRS Report RS21125, Homeland Security: Coast Guard
Operations — Background and Issues for Congress.
27 EPA Draft Discharge Assessment Report, p. 2-13.
!NDZ for special waters found to have a particular environmental
importance (e.g., to protect environmentally sensitive areas such as
shellfish beds or coral reefs); it is not necessary for the state to show
pumpout availability. This category of designation has been used
twice (state waters within the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary and the Boundary Waters Canoe area of Minnesota).
!NDZ to prohibit the discharge of sewage into waters that are
drinking water intake zones; it is not necessary for the state to show
pumpout availability. This category of designation has been used to
protect part of the Hudson River in New York.
Graywater. Under current federal law, graywater is not defined as a pollutant,
nor is it generally considered to be sewage. By regulation, EPA exempts discharges
incidental to the normal operation of a vessel, including graywater, from NPDES
permit requirements (40 CFR § 122.3); however, a federal court has ordered EPA to
set aside this rule (see discussion of Ballast Water, page 16). There are no separate
federal effluent standards for graywater discharges. The Clean Water Act only
includes graywater in its definition of sewage for the express purpose of regulating
commercial vessels in the Great Lakes, under the Section 312 MSD requirements.
Thus, currently graywater can be discharged by cruise ships anywhere — except in
the Great Lakes, where the Section 312 MSD rules apply, but those rules prescribe
limits only for bacterial contaminant content and total suspended solids in graywater.
Pursuant to a state law in Alaska, graywater must be treated prior to discharge into
that state’s waters (see discussion below, page 20).
Solid Waste. Cruise ship discharges of solid waste are governed by two laws.
Title I of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA, 33 U.S.C.
1402-1421) applies to cruise ships and other vessels and makes it illegal to transport
garbage from the United States for the purpose of dumping it into ocean waters
without a permit or to dump any material transported from a location outside the
United States into U.S. territorial seas or the contiguous zone (within 12 nautical
miles from shore) or ocean waters. EPA is responsible for issuing permits that
regulate the disposal of materials at sea (except for dredged material disposal, for
which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible). Beyond waters that are
under U.S. jurisdiction, no MPRSA permit is required for a cruise ship to discharge
solid waste. The routine discharge of effluent incidental to the propulsion of vessels
is explicitly exempted from the definition of dumping in the MPRSA.28
The Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS, 33 U.S.C. 1901-1915) and its
regulations, which implement U.S.-ratified provisions of MARPOL, also apply to
cruise ships. APPS prohibits the discharge of all garbage within 3 nautical miles of
shore, certain types of garbage within 12 nautical miles offshore, and plastic
28 The 1988 Shore Protection Act (33 U.S.C. 2601-2603) prohibits vessels from transporting
municipal or commercial waste in U.S. coastal waters without a permit issued by the
Department of Transportation. It was intended to minimize trash, medical debris, and
potentially harmful materials from being deposited in U.S. coastal waters. However, its
provisions exclude waste generated by a vessel during normal operations and thus do not
apply to cruise ships.
anywhere. As described above, it applies to all vessels, whether seagoing or not,
regardless of flag, operating in U.S. navigable waters and the Exclusive Economic
Zone (EEZ). It is administered by the Coast Guard which carries out inspection
programs to insure the adequacy of port facilities to receive offloaded solid waste.
Hazardous Waste. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA,
42 U.S.C. 6901-6991k) is the primary federal law that governs hazardous waste
management through a “cradle-to-grave” program that controls hazardous waste from
the point of generation until ultimate disposal. The act imposes management
requirements on generators, transporters, and persons who treat or dispose of
hazardous waste. Under this act, a waste is hazardous if it is ignitable, corrosive,
reactive, or toxic, or appears on a list of about 100 industrial process waste streams
and more than 500 discarded commercial products and chemicals. Treatment,
storage, and disposal facilities are required to have permits and comply with
operating standards and other EPA regulations.
The owner or operator of a cruise ship may be a generator and/or a transporter
of hazardous waste, and thus subject to RCRA rules. Issues that the cruise ship
industry may face relating to RCRA include ensuring that hazardous waste is
identified at the point at which it is considered generated; ensuring that parties are
properly identified as generators, storers, treaters, or disposers; and determining the
applicability of RCRA requirements to each. Hazardous waste generated onboard
cruise ships are stored onboard until the wastes can be offloaded for recycling or
disposal in accordance with RCRA.29
A range of activities on board cruise ships generate hazardous wastes and toxic
substances that would ordinarily be presumed to be subject to RCRA. Cruise ships
are potentially subject to RCRA requirements to the extent that chemicals used for
operations such as ship maintenance and passenger services result in the generation
of hazardous wastes. However, it is not entirely clear what regulations apply to the30
management and disposal of these wastes. RCRA rules that cover small-quantity
generators (those that generate more than 100 kilograms but less than 1,000
kilograms of hazardous waste per month) are less stringent than those for large-
quantity generators (generating more than 1,000 kilograms per month), and it is
unclear whether cruise ships are classified as large or small generators of hazardous
waste. Moreover, some cruise companies argue that they generate less than 100
kilograms per month and therefore should be classified in a third category, as
“conditionally exempt small-quantity generators,” a categorization that allows for31
less rigorous requirements for notification, recordkeeping, and the like.
A release of hazardous substances by a cruise ship or other vessel could also
theoretically trigger the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation,
and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund, 42 U.S.C. 9601-9675), but it does not
appear to have been used in response to cruise ship releases. CERCLA requires that
29 EPA Draft Discharge Assessment Report, pp. 6-4, 6-7.
30 EPA White Paper, p. 10.
31 “Cruising for Trouble,” p. 5.
any person in charge of a vessel shall immediately notify the National Response
Center of any release of a hazardous substance (other than discharges in compliance
with a federal permit under the Clean Water Act or other environmental law) into
waters of the United States or the contiguous zone. Notification is required for
releases in amounts determined by EPA that may present substantial danger to the
public health, welfare, or the environment. EPA has identified 500 wastes as
hazardous substances under these provisions and issued rules on quantities that are
reportable, covering releases as small as 1 pound of some substances (40 CFR Part
302). CERCLA authorizes the President (acting through the Coast Guard in coastal
waters) to remove and provide for remedial action relating to the release.
In addition to RCRA, hazardous waste discharges from cruise ships are subject
to Section 311 of the Clean Water Act, which prohibits the discharge of hazardous
substances in harmful quantities into or upon the navigable waters of the United
States, adjoining shorelines, or into or upon the waters of the contiguous zone.
Bilge Water. Section 311 of the Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil
Pollution Act of 1990 (33 U.S.C. 2701-2720), applies to cruise ships and prohibits
discharge of oil or hazardous substances in harmful quantities into or upon U.S.
navigable waters, or into or upon the waters of the contiguous zone, or which may
affect natural resources in the U.S. EEZ (extending 200 miles offshore). Coast Guard
regulations (33 CFR §151.10) prohibit discharge of oil within 12 miles from shore,
unless passed through a 15-ppm oil water separator, and unless the discharge does
not cause a visible sheen. Beyond 12 miles, oil or oily mixtures can be discharged
while a vessel is proceeding en route and if the oil content without dilution is less
than 100 ppm. Vessels are required to maintain an Oil Record Book to record
disposal of oily residues and discharges overboard or disposal of bilge water.
In addition to Section 311 requirements, the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships
(APPS) implements MARPOL Annex I concerning oil pollution. APPS applies to
all U.S. flagged ships anywhere in the world and to all foreign flagged vessels
operating in the navigable waters of the United States, or while at a port under U.S.
jurisdiction. To implement APPS, the Coast Guard has promulgated regulations
prohibiting the discharge of oil or oily mixtures into the sea within 12 nautical miles
of the nearest land, except under limited conditions. However, because most cruise
lines are foreign registered and because APPS only applies to foreign ships within
U.S. navigable waters, the APPS regulations have limited applicability to cruise ship
operations. In addition, most cruise lines have adopted policies that restrict
discharges of machinery space waste within three miles from shore.
Ballast Water. Clean Water Act regulations currently exempt ballast water
discharges incidental to the normal operation of cruise ships and other vessels from
NPDES permit requirements (see above discussions concerning sewage and
graywater). Because of the growing problem of introduction of invasive species into
U.S. waters via ballast water, in January 1999, a number of conservation
organizations, fishing groups, native American tribes, and water agencies petitioned
EPA to repeal its 1973 regulation exempting ballast water discharge, arguing that
ballast water should be regulated as the “discharge of a pollutant” under the Clean
Water Act’s Section 402 permit program. EPA rejected the petition in September
to which Congress has acquiesced twice (in 1979 and 1996) when it considered the
issue of aquatic nuisance species in ballast water and did not alter EPA’s CWA
interpretation.32 Further, EPA said that other ongoing federal activities related to
control of invasive species in ballast water are likely to be more effective than
changing the NPDES rules.33 Until 2004, these efforts to limit ballast water
discharges by cruise ships and other vessels were primarily voluntary, except in the
Great Lakes. Since then, all vessels equipped with ballast water tanks must have a
ballast water management plan.34
After the denial of their administrative petition, the environmental groups filed
a lawsuit seeking to force EPA to rescind the regulation that exempts ballast water
discharges from CWA permitting. In March 2005, a federal district court ruled in
favor of the groups, and in September 2006, the court remanded the matter to EPA
with an order that the challenged regulation be set aside by September 30, 2008
(Northwest Environmental Advocates v. EPA, No. C 03-05760 SI (N.D.Cal,
September 18, 2006)). The district court rejected EPA’s contention that Congress
had previously acquiesced in exempting the “normal operation” of vessels from
CWA permitting and disagreed with EPA’s argument that the court’s two-year
deadline creates practical difficulties for the agency and the affected industry.
Significantly, while the focus of the environmental groups’ challenge was principally
to EPA’s permitting exemption for ballast water discharges, the court’s ruling — and
its mandate to EPA to rescind the exemption in 40 CFR §122.3(a) — applies fully
to other types of vessel discharges that are covered by the long-standing regulatory
exemption, including graywater and bilge water.
The government has appealed the district court’s ruling, and the parties are
waiting for a ruling from the appeals court. On June 17, while waiting for the court
of appeals or Congress to provide relief from the district court’s order, EPA proposed
two CWA general permits that it believes could be finalized by September 30.35 One
of these permits (the Vessel General Permit, or VGP) would apply to large
recreational and commercial vessels, including cruise ships. The draft VGP proposes
that most of the categories of waste streams from the normal operations of these
vessels would be controlled by best management practices (BMPs) that are described
in the permit, many of which are already practiced or are required by existing
regulations. To control ballast water discharges, the draft VGP primarily relies on
existing Coast Guard requirements (at 33 CFR Part 151, Subparts C and D), plus
certain flushing and ballast exchange practices, especially for vessels in Pacific
32 68 Federal Register 53165, September 9, 2003.
33 In 1990, Congress enacted the Non-indigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control
Act (16 U.S.C. 4701 et seq) to focus federal efforts on non-indigenous, invasive, aquatic
nuisance species, specifically when such species occur in ballast water discharges. That
law, as amended by the National Invasive Species Act of 1996, delegated authority to the
Coast Guard to establish a phased-in regulatory program for ballast water.
34 For information, see CRS Report RL32344, Ballast Water Management to Combat
Invasive Species, by Eugene H. Buck.
35 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination
System (NPDES) General Permits for Discharges Incidental to the Normal Operation of
Vessels,” 73 Federal Register 117, June 17, 2008, pp. 34296-343049.
nearshore areas. To control discharges of bilge water, the draft VGP provides for
BMPs, which EPA indicates are consistent with current rules and industry practice.
The draft VGP does not include sewage discharges from vessels, as these are already
regulated under CWA Section 312. The draft VGP includes a specific provision
governing graywater discharges from cruise ships. It would include BMPs as well
as numeric limits for fecal coliform and residual chlorine, and it includes operational
limits on cruise ship graywater discharges in nutrient-impaired waters, such as
Chesapeake Bay or Puget Sound. (The second proposed permit would be for
recreational vessels less than 79 feet in length.)
The 110th Congress considered ballast water discharge issues, specifically
legislation to provide a uniform national approach for addressing aquatic nuisance
species from ballast water under a program administered by the Coast Guard (S.
and H.R. 2830, passed by the House April 28, 2008). Some groups opposed S. 1578
and H.R. 2830, because the legislation would preempt states from enacting ballast
water management programs more stringent than Coast Guard requirements, while
the CWA does allow states to adopt requirements more stringent than in federal rules.
Also, while the CWA permits citizen suits to enforce the law, the legislation included
no citizen suit provisions. There was no further action on this legislation.
Air Pollution. The Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C. 7401 et seq.) is the principal
federal law that addresses air quality concerns. It requires EPA to set health-based
standards for ambient air quality, sets standards for the achievement of those
standards, and sets national emission standards for large and ubiquitous sources of
air pollution, including mobile sources. Cruise ships emissions were not regulated
until February 2003. At that time, EPA promulgated emission standards for new
marine diesel engines on large vessels (called Category 3 marine engines) such as
container ships, tankers, bulk carriers, and cruise ships flagged or registered in the
United States.36 The 2003 rule resulted from settlement of litigation brought by the
environmental group Bluewater Network after it had petitioned EPA to issue
stringent emission standards for large vessels and cruise ships.37 Standards in the rule
are equivalent to internationally negotiated standards set in Annex VI of the
MARPOL protocol for nitrogen oxides, which engine manufacturers currently meet,38
according to EPA. Emissions from these large, primarily ocean-going vessels
(including container ships, tankers, bulk carriers, as well as cruise ships) had not
previously been subject to EPA regulation. The rule is one of several EPA
regulations establishing emissions standards for nonroad engines and vehicles, under
Section 213(a) of the Clean Air Act. Smaller marine diesel engines are regulated
under rules issued in 1996 and 1999.
36 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Final Rule, Control of Emissions from New
Marine Compression-Ignition Engines at or Above 30 Liters Per Cylinder,” 68 Federal
Register 9746-9789, February 28, 2003.
37 For information, see [http://www.earthjustice.org/news/display.html?ID=53] and [http://
www.ear t hj ust i ce.or g/ ur ge nt / di s pl ay.ht ml ?ID=158] .
38 Annex VI, which came into force internationally in May 2005, also regulates ozone-
depleting emissions, sulfur oxides, and shipboard incineration, but there are no restrictions
on particulate matter, hydrocarbons, or carbon monoxide.
In the 2003 rule, EPA announced that over the next two years it would continue
to review issues and technology related to emissions from large marine vessel
engines in order to promulgate additional, more stringent emission standards for very
large marine engines and vessels by April 2007. Addressing long-term standards in
a future rulemaking, EPA said, could facilitate international efforts through the IMO
(since the majority of ships used in international commerce are flagged in other
nations), while also permitting the United States to proceed, if international standards
are not adopted in a timely manner. Environmental groups criticized EPA for
excluding foreign-flagged vessels that enter U.S. ports from the marine diesel engine
rules and challenged the 2003 rules in federal court. The rules were upheld in a
ruling issued June 22, 2004.39 EPA said that it will consider including foreign
vessels in the future rulemaking to consider more stringent standards.
In April 2007, EPA announced an extension of the deadline that had been
announced in 2003 for new Category 3 marine diesel engine standards — until
December 17, 2009. EPA explained that more time was needed to assess advanced
emission control technologies and to coordinate with the IMO. Most recently, EPA
published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on
the scope of the rules that the agency should propose for a second tier of Category 3
engines.40 Some groups are displeased with EPA’s delay, and in response, legislation
has been introduced in the 110th Congress that would set specific standards and
deadlines to limit the sulfur content of fuel used by U.S. and foreign-flagged marine
vessels when they enter or leave U.S. ports, and to require advanced pollution
controls for other air emissions from such marine vessels (S. 1499/H.R. 2548).
As noted previously (see discussion of MARPOL, page ?), the 110th Congress
enacted legislation to implement MARPOL Annex VI, concerning standards to
control air pollution from vessels. EPA also is participating in international
discussions to strengthen the requirements of Annex VI.
Considerations of Geographic Jurisdiction. The various laws and
regulations described here apply to different geographic areas, depending on the
terminology used. For example, the Clean Water Act treats navigable waters, the
contiguous zone, and the ocean as distinct entities. The term “navigable waters” is
defined to mean the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas (33
U.S.C. §1362(7)). In turn, the territorial seas are defined in that act as extending a
distance of 3 miles seaward from the baseline (33 U.S.C. §1362(8)); the baseline
generally means the land or shore. In 1988, President Reagan signed a proclamation
(Proc. No. 5928, December 27, 1988, 54 Federal Register 777) providing that the
territorial sea of the United States extends to 12 nautical miles from the U.S.
baseline. However, that proclamation had no effect on the geographic reach of the
Clean Water Act.
39 Bluewater Network v. EPA, D.C.Cir., No. 03-1120, June 22, 2004.
40 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Control of Emissions from New Marine
Compression-Ignition Engines at or Above 30 Liters per Cylinder; Proposed Rule,” Federal
Register, vol. 72, no. 235, December 7, 2007, pp. 69521-69552.
The contiguous zone is defined in the CWA to mean the entire zone established
by the United States under Article 24 of the Convention of the Territorial Sea and the
Contiguous Zone (33 U.S.C. §1362(9)). That convention defines “contiguous zone”
as extending from the baseline from which the territorial sea is measured to not
beyond 12 miles. In 1999, President Clinton signed a proclamation (Proc. No. 7219
of August 2, 1999, 64 Federal Register 48701) giving U.S. authorities the right to
enforce customs, immigration, or sanitary laws at sea within 24 nautical miles from
the baseline, doubling the traditional 12-mile width of the contiguous zone. As with
the 1988 presidential proclamation, this proclamation did not amend any statutory
definitions (as a general matter, a presidential proclamation cannot amend a statute).
Thus, for purposes of the Clean Water Act, the territorial sea remains 3 miles wide,
and the contiguous zone extends from 3 to 12 miles. Under CERCLA, “navigable
waters” means waters of the United States, including the territorial seas (42 U.S.C.
§9601(15)), and that law incorporates the Clean Water Act’s definitions of “territorial
seas” and “contiguous zone” (42 U.S.C. §9601(30)).
The CWA defines the “ocean” as any portion of the high seas beyond the
contiguous zone (33 U.S.C. §1362(10)). In contrast, the MPRSA defines “ocean
waters” as the open seas lying seaward beyond the baseline from which the territorial
sea is measured, as provided for in the Convention of the Territorial Sea and the
Contiguous Zone (33 U.S.C. §1402(b)).
Limits of jurisdiction are important because they define the areas where specific
laws and rules apply. For example, the Clean Water Act MSD standards apply to
sewage discharges from vessels into or upon the navigable waters, and Section 402
NPDES permits are required for point source discharges (excluding vessels) into the
navigable waters. Section 311 of the CWA, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act,
addresses discharges of oil or hazardous substances into or upon the navigable waters
of the United States or the waters of the contiguous zone. Provisions of the Act to
Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS, 33 U.S.C. §§1901-1915) concerning discharges
of oil and noxious substances apply to navigable waters. Other provisions of that
same act concerning garbage and plastics apply to navigable waters or the EEZ, but
the term “navigable waters” is not defined in APPS. The MPRSA regulates ocean
dumping within the area extending 12 nautical miles seaward from the baseline and
regulates transport of material by U.S.-flagged vessels for dumping into ocean
Further complicating jurisdictional considerations is the fact that the Clean
Water Act refers to these distances from shore in terms of miles, without other
qualification, which is generally interpreted to mean an international mile or statute
mile. APPS, the MPRSA, and the two presidential proclamations refer to distances
in terms of nautical miles from the baseline. These two measures are not identical:
a nautical mile is a unit of distance used primarily at sea and in aviation; it equals
41 For an explanation of these terms, see [http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/
In Alaska, where tourism and commercial fisheries are key contributors to the
economy, cruise ship pollution has received significant attention. After the state
experienced a three-fold increase in the number of cruise ship passengers visits
during the 1990s,42 concern by Alaska Natives and other groups over impacts of
cruise ship pollution on marine resources began to increase. In one prominent
example of environmental violations, in July 1999, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines
entered a federal criminal plea agreement involving total penalties of $6.5 million for
violations in Alaska, including knowingly discharging oil and hazardous substances
(including dry-cleaning and photo processing chemicals). The company admitted to
a fleet-wide practice of discharging oil-contaminated bilge water. The Alaska
penalties were part of a larger $18 million total federal plea agreement involving
environmental violations in multiple locations, including Florida, New York, and
Public concern about the Royal Caribbean violations led the state to initiate a
program in December 1999 to identify cruise ship waste streams. Voluntary
sampling of large cruise ships in 2000 indicated that waste treatment systems on most
ships did not function well and discharges greatly exceeded applicable U.S. Coast
Guard standards for Type II MSDs. Fecal coliform levels sampled during that period
averaged 12.8 million colonies per 100 milliliters in blackwater and 1.2 million in
graywater, far in excess of the Coast Guard standard of 200 fecal coliforms per 100
Federal Legislation. Concurrent with growing regional interest in these
problems, attention to the Alaska issues led to passage of federal legislation in
December 2000 (Certain Alaskan Cruise Ship Operations, Division B, Title XIV of
the Miscellaneous Appropriations Bill, H.R. 5666, in the Consolidated
Appropriations Act, 2001 (P.L. 106-554); 33 U.S.C. 1901 Note). This law
established standards for vessels with 500 or more overnight passengers and
generally prohibited discharge of untreated sewage and graywater in navigable waters
of the United States within the state of Alaska. It authorized EPA to promulgate43
standards for sewage and graywater discharges from cruise ships in these waters.
Until such time as EPA issues regulations, cruise ships may discharge treated sewage
wastes in Alaska waters only while traveling at least 6 knots and while at least 1
nautical mile from shore, provided that the discharge contains no more than 200 fecal
42 In 2003, the number of cruise ship passengers in Southeast Alaska was about 800,000,
with tens of thousands of crew, in addition. By comparison, the state’s population is
approximately 650,000. Roughly 95% of the current cruise ship traffic is concentrated in
Southeast Alaska, a region with a population of approximately 73,000 people. Alaska
Department of Environmental Conservation, Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental
Compliance Program, “Assessment of Cruise Ship and Ferry Wastewater Impacts in
Alaska,” February 9, 2004, p. 8. Hereafter, “Assessment of Impacts in Alaska.”
43 As part of its efforts to develop these vessel discharge standards, in the summer of 2004
EPA sampled wastewater from four large cruise ships operating in Alaska waters in order
to evaluate the performance of various treatment systems. Results of this sampling are
available at [http://www.epa.gov/owow/oceans/cruise_ships/results.html.
coliforms per 100 ml and no more than 150 mg/l total suspended solids (the same
limits prescribed in federal regulations for Type II MSDs).
The law also allows for discharges of treated sewage and graywater inside of
one mile from shore and at speeds less than 6 knots (thus including stationary
discharges while a ship is at anchor) for vessels with systems that can treat sewage
and graywater to a much stricter standard. Such vessels must meet these minimum
effluent standards: no more than 20 fecal coliforms per 100 ml, no more than 30
mg/l of total suspended solids, and total residual chlorine concentrations not to
exceed 10 mg/l. The legislation requires sampling, data collection, and recordkeeping
by vessel operators to facilitate Coast Guard oversight and enforcement. Regulations
to implement the federal law were issued by the U.S. Coast Guard in July 2001 and
became effective immediately upon publication.44 The regulations stipulate
minimum sampling and testing procedures and provide for administrative and
criminal penalties for violations of the law, as provided in the legislation.
Pursuant to Title IV, EPA carried out a multi-year project to determine whether
revised and/or additional standards for sewage and graywater discharges from large
cruise ships operating in Alaska are warranted. In particular, EPA sampled
wastewater from four cruise ships that operated in Alaska during the summers of
2004 and 2005 to characterize graywater and sewage generated onboard and to
evaluate the performance of various treatment systems. Much of the information
collected through this effort is summarized in the 2007 Draft Cruise Ship Discharge
In the 109th Congress, the House approved legislation, H.R. 5681, with a
provision (Section 410) directing the Coast Guard to conduct a demonstration project
on the methods and best practices of the use of smokestack scrubbers on cruise ships
that operate in the Alaska cruise trade. The Senate did not act on H.R. 5681 before
the 109th Congress adjourned in December 2006.
Alaska State Legislation and Initiatives. Building on the federal
legislation enacted in 2000, the state of Alaska enacted its own law in June 2001 (AS
46.03.460-AS 46.03.490). The state law sets standards and sampling requirements
for the underway discharge of blackwater in Alaska that are identical to the
blackwater/sewage standards in the federal law. However, because of the high fecal
coliform counts detected in graywater in 2000, the state law also extends the effluent
standards to discharges of graywater. Sampling requirements for all ships took effect
in 2001, as did effluent standards for blackwater discharges by large cruise ships
(defined as providing overnight accommodations to 250 or more). Effluent standards
for graywater discharges by large vessels took effect in 2003. Small ships (defined
as providing overnight accommodations for 50 to 249 passengers) were allowed three
years to come into compliance with all effluent standards. The law also established
a scientific advisory panel to evaluate the effectiveness of the law’s implementation
and to advise the state on scientific matters related to cruise ship impacts on the
Alaskan environment and public health.
44 66 Federal Register 38926, July 26, 2001.
In February 2004, the state reported on compliance with the federal and state
requirements for the years 2001-2003.45 According to the state, the federal and state
standards have prompted large ships to either install advanced wastewater treatment
systems that meet the effluent standards or to manage wastes by holding all of their
wastewater for discharge outside of Alaskan waters (beyond 3 miles from shore). As
of 2003, the majority of large ships (56%) had installed advanced technology
(compared with 8% that had done so in 2001), while the remaining 44% discharge
outside of Alaska waters. As a result, the quality of wastewater discharged from
large ships has improved dramatically, according to the state: the majority of
conventional and toxic pollutants that ships must sample for were not detected, and
test results indicate that wastewater from large ships with advanced wastewater
treatment systems does not pose a risk to aquatic organisms or to human health, even
during stationary discharge.
Small ships, however, had not installed new wastewater treatment systems, and
the effluent quality has remained relatively constant, with discharge levels for several
pollutants regularly exceeding state water quality standards. In particular, test results
indicated that concentrations of free chlorine, fecal coliform, copper, and zinc from
stationary smaller vessels pose some risk to aquatic life and also to human health in
areas where aquatic life is harvested for raw consumption.
In addition to the state’s 2001 action, in August 2006 Alaska voters approved
a citizen initiative requiring cruise lines to pay the state a $50 head tax for each
passenger and a corporate income tax, increasing fines for wastewater violations, and
mandating new environmental regulations for cruise ships (such as a state permit for
all discharges of treated wastewater). Revenues from the taxes will go to local
communities affected by tourism and into public services and facilities used by cruise
ships. Supporters of the initiative contend that the cruise industry does not pay
enough in taxes to compensate for its environmental harm to the state and for the
services it uses. Opponents argued that the initiative would hurt Alaska’s
competitiveness for tourism.
Other State Activities
Activity to regulate or prohibit cruise ship discharges also has occurred in
several other states.
In April 2004, the state of Maine enacted legislation governing discharges of
graywater or mixed blackwater/graywater into coastal waters of the state (Maine LD.
1158). The legislation applies to large cruise ships (with overnight accommodations
for 250 or more passengers) and allows such vessels into state waters after January
1, 2006, only if the ships have advanced wastewater treatment systems, comply with
discharge and recordkeeping requirements under the federal Alaska cruise ship law,
and get a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Under the
law, prior to 2006, graywater dischargers were allowed if the ship operated a
treatment system conforming to requirements for continuous discharge systems under
the Alaska federal and state laws. In addition, the legislation required the state to
45 “Assessment of Impacts in Alaska,” pp. 33-57.
apply to EPA for designation of up to 50 No Discharge Zones, in order that Maine
may gain federal authorization to prohibit blackwater discharges into state waters.
EPA approved the state’s NDZ request for Casco Bay in June 2006.
California enacted three bills in 2004. One bars cruise ships from discharging
treated wastewater while in the state’s waters (Calif. A.B. 2672). Another prohibits
vessels from releasing graywater (Calif. A.B. 2093), and the third measure prevents
cruise ships from operating waste incinerators (Calif. A.B. 471). Additionally, in
2003 California enacted a law that bans passenger ships from discharging sewage
sludge and oil bilge water (Calif. A.B. 121), as well as a bill that prohibits vessels
from discharging hazardous wastes from photo-processing and dry cleaning
operations into state waters (Calif. A.B. 906). Another measure was enacted in 2006:
California S.B. 497 requiring the state to adopt ballast water performance standards
by January 2008 and setting specific deadlines for the removal of different types of
species from ballast water, mandating that ship operators remove invasive species
(including bacteria) by the year 2020.
Several states, including Florida, Washington, and Hawaii, have entered into
memoranda of agreement with the industry (through the International Council of
Cruise Lines and related organizations) providing that cruise ships will adhere to
certain practices concerning waste minimization, waste reuse and recycling, and
waste management. For example, under a 2001 agreement between industry and the
state of Florida, cruise lines must eliminate wastewater discharges in state waters
within 4 nautical miles off the coast of Florida, report hazardous waste off-loaded in
the United States by each vessel on an annual basis, and submit to environmental
inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Similarly, in April 2004 the Washington Department of Ecology, Northwest
Cruise Ship Association, and Port of Seattle signed a memorandum of understanding
(MOU) that would allow cruise ships to discharge wastewater treated with advanced
wastewater treatment systems into state waters and would prohibit the discharge of
untreated wastewater and sludge. Environmental advocates are generally critical of
such voluntary agreements, because they lack enforcement and penalty provisions.
States respond that while the Clean Water Act limits a state’s ability to control cruise
ship discharges, federal law does not bar states from entering into voluntary
agreements that have more rigorous requirements.46 In January 2005 the Department
of Ecology reported that cruise ships visiting the state during the 2004 sailing season
mostly complied with the MOU to stop discharging untreated wastewater, leading to
some improvement in management of wastes. Although enforcement of what is
essentially a voluntary agreement is difficult, the state argues that having something
in place to protect water quality, while not lessening the state’s authority, is
46 Washington State Department of Ecology, Water Quality Program, “Focus on: Cruise
Ship Discharges. Draft — Memorandum of Understanding (MOU),” April 10, 2004, p. 2.
47 State of Washington. Department of Ecology. “2004 Assessment of Cruise Ship
Environmental Effects in Washington.” January 2005. 22 p.
Pressure from environmental advocates, coupled with the industry’s strong
desire to promote a positive image, have led the cruise ship industry to respond with
several initiatives. In 2001, members of the International Council of Cruise Lines
(ICCL), which represents 16 of the world’s largest cruise lines, adopted a set of waste
management practices and procedures for their worldwide operations building on
regulations of the IMO and U.S. EPA. The guidelines generally require graywater
and blackwater to be discharged only while a ship is underway and at least 4 miles
from shore and require that hazardous wastes be recycled or disposed of in
accordance with applicable laws and regulations.
Twelve major cruise line companies also have implemented Safety Management
System (SMS) plans for developing enhanced wastewater systems and increased
auditing oversight. These SMS plans are certified in accordance with the IMO’s
International Safety Management Code. The industry also is working with
equipment manufacturers and regulators to develop and test technologies in areas
such as lower emission turbine engines and ballast water management for elimination
of non-native species. Environmental groups commend industry for voluntarily
adopting improved management practices but also believe that enforceable standards
are preferable to voluntary standards, no matter how well intentioned.48
The ICCL joined with the environmental group Conservation International (CI)
to form the Ocean Conservation and Tourism Alliance to work on a number of
issues. In December 2003 they announced conservation efforts in four areas to
protect biodiversity in coastal areas: improving technology for wastewater
management aboard cruise ships, working with local governments to protect the
natural and cultural assets of cruise destinations, raising passenger and crew
awareness and support of critical conservation issues, and educating vendors to
lessen the environmental impacts of products from cruise ship suppliers. Because
two-thirds of the top cruise destinations in the world are located in the Caribbean and
Mediterranean, two important biodiversity regions, in March 2006 ICCL and CI
announced a joint initiative to develop a map integrating sensitive marine areas into
cruise line navigational charts, with the goal of protecting critical marine and coastal
In May 2004, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. announced plans to retrofit all
vessels in its 29-ship fleet with advanced wastewater treatment technology by 2008,
becoming the first cruise line to commit to doing so completely. The company had
been the focus of efforts by the environmental group Oceana to pledge to adopt
measures that will protect the ocean environment and that could serve as a model for
others in the cruise ship industry, in part because of the company’s efforts to alter its
practices following federal enforcement actions in the 1990s for environmental
violations that resulted in RCCL paying criminal fines that totaled $27 million.
48 “Cruise Control,” p. 25.
Issues for Congress
Concerns about cruise ship pollution raise issues for Congress in three broad
areas: adequacy of laws and regulations, research needs, and oversight and
enforcement of existing programs and requirements. Attention to these issues is
relatively recent, and more assessment is needed of existing conditions and whether
current steps (public and private) are adequate. Bringing the issues to national
priority sufficient to obtain resources that will address the problems is a challenge.
Laws and Regulations. A key issue is whether the several existing U.S.
laws, international protocols and standards, state activities, and industry initiatives
described in this report adequately address management of cruise ship pollution, or
whether legislative changes are needed to fill in gaps, remedy exclusions, or
strengthen current requirements. As EPA noted in its 2000 white paper, certain
cruise ship waste streams such as oil and solid waste are regulated under a
comprehensive set of laws and regulations, but others, such as graywater, are
excluded or treated in ways that appear to leave gaps in coverage.49 Graywater is one
particular area of interest, since investigations, such as sampling by state of Alaska
officials, have found substantial contamination of cruise ship graywater from fecal
coliform, bacteria, heavy metals, and dissolved plastics. State officials were
surprised that graywater from ships’ galley and sink waste streams tested higher for
fecal coliform than did the ships’ sewage lines.50 One view advocating strengthened
requirements came from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. In its 2004 final
report, the Commission advocated clear, uniform requirements for controlling the
discharge of wastewater from large passenger vessels, as well as consistent
interpretation and enforcement of those requirements. It recommended that Congress
establish a new statutory regime that should include:
!uniform discharge standards and waste management procedures.
!thorough recordkeeping requirements to track the waste management
!required sampling, testing, and monitoring by vessel operators using
!flexibility and incentives to encourage industry investment in
innovative treatment technologies.51
A proposal reflecting some of these concepts, the Clean Cruise Ship Act, was
introduced in the 109th Congress as S. 793 (Durbin) and H.R. 1636 (Farr), but
Congress did not act on either bill. The bills were free-standing legislation that
would not have amended any current law, nor ratified Annex IV of MARPOL. The
legislation would have prohibited cruise vessels entering a U.S. port from discharging
sewage, graywater, or bilge water into waters of the United States, including the
Great Lakes, except in compliance with prescribed effluent limits and management
49 EPA White Paper, p. 16.
50 “Assessment of Impacts in Alaska,” p. 12.
51 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, “An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century,” September
standards. It further would have directed EPA and the Coast Guard to promulgate
effluent limits for sewage and graywater discharges from cruise vessels that were no
less stringent than the more restrictive standards under the existing federal Alaska
cruise ship law described above. It would have required cruise ships to treat
wastewater wherever they operate and authorized broadened federal enforcement
authority, including inspection, sampling, and testing. Environmental advocates
supported this legislation. Industry groups argued that it targeted an industry that
represents only a small percentage of the world’s ships and that environmental
standards of the industry, including voluntary practices, already meet or exceed
current international and U.S. regulations. Similar legislation was introduced in the
As noted above, some states have passed legislation to regulate cruise ship
discharges. If this state-level activity increases, Congress could see a need to develop
federal legislation that would harmonize differences in the states’ approaches.
Another issue for Congress is the status of EPA’s efforts to manage or regulate
cruise ship wastes. As discussed previously, in 2000 Congress authorized EPA to
issue standards for sewage and graywater discharges from large cruise ships
operating in Alaska. The agency has been collecting information and assessing the
need for additional standards, beyond those provided in P.L. 106-554, but has not yet
proposed any rules. In December 2007, EPA released a Draft Cruise Ship Discharge
Assessment Report that builds on the 2000 White Paper and partially responds to the
2000 petition by Bluewater Network and other groups that seek to force EPA to
address cruise ship pollution (see page 2). The draft report examines five cruise ship
waste streams (sewage, graywater, oily bilge water, solid waste, and hazardous
waste) and discusses how the waste streams are managed and current actions by the
federal government to address the waste streams. However, while the draft report
summarizes available information, it does not include recommendations or options
to address management of cruise ship wastes. A final report, expected at the end of
Other related issues of interest could include harmonizing the differences
presented in U.S. laws for key jurisdictional terms as they apply to cruise ships and
other types of vessels; providing a single definition of “cruise ship,” which is defined
variously in federal and state laws and rules, with respect to gross tonnage of ships,
number of passengers carried, presence of overnight passenger accommodations, or
primary purpose of the vessel; or requiring updating of existing regulations to reflect
improved technology (such as the MSD rules that were issued in 1976).
Research. Several areas of research might help improve understanding of the
quantities of waste generated by cruise ships, impacts of discharges and emissions,
and the potential for new control technologies. In the 2007 Draft Cruise Ship
Discharge Assessment report, EPA stated that it is evaluating technologies for the
treatment of sewage and graywater, including some now used for land-based
treatment that could be adapted for shipboard application, and anticipates making
these analyses publicly available later in 2008.52
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy noted in its 2004 final report that
research can help identify the degree of harm represented by vessel pollution and can
assist in prioritizing limited resources to address the most significant threats. The
commission identified several directions for research by the Coast Guard, EPA,
NOAA, and other appropriate entities on the fates and impacts of vessel pollution:53
!Processes that govern the transport of pollutants in the marine
!Small passenger vessel practices, including the impacts of stationary
!Disposal options for concentrated sludge resulting from advanced
sewage treatment on large passenger vessels.
!Cumulative impacts of commercial and recreational vessel pollution
on particularly sensitive ecosystems, such as coastal areas with low
tidal exchange and coral reef systems.
!Impacts of vessel air emissions, particularly in ports and inland
waterways where the surrounding area is already having difficulty
meeting air quality standards.
Oversight and Enforcement. The 2000 GAO report documented — and
EPA’s 2000 cruise ship white paper acknowledged — that existing laws and
regulations may not be adequately enforced or implemented. GAO said there is need
for monitoring of the discharges from cruise ships in order to evaluate the
effectiveness of current standards and management. GAO also said that increased
federal oversight of cruise ships by the Coast Guard and other agencies is needed
concerning maintenance and operation of pollution prevention equipment, falsifying
of oil record books (which are required for compliance with MARPOL), and analysis
of records to verify proper off-loading of garbage and oily sludge to onshore disposal
The Coast Guard has primary enforcement responsibility for many of the federal
programs concerning cruise ship pollution. A key oversight and enforcement issue
is the adequacy of the Coast Guard’s resources to support its multiple homeland and
non-homeland security missions. The resource question as it relates to vessel
inspections was raised even before the September 11 terrorist attacks, in the GAO’s
2000 report. The same question has been raised since then, in light of the Coast
Guard’s expanded responsibilities for homeland security and resulting shift in55
operations, again by the GAO and others.
52 EPA Draft Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report, pp. 2-36 - 2-39.
53 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, “An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century,” September
54 2000 GAO Report, p. 34.
55 U.S. General Accounting Office, Coast Guard: Relationship between Resources Used and
In its 2000 report, GAO also found that the process for referring cruise ship
violations to other countries does not appear to be working, either within the Coast
Guard or internationally, and GAO recommended that the Coast Guard work with the
IMO to encourage member countries to respond when pollution cases are referred to
them and that the Coast Guard make greater efforts to periodically follow up on
alleged pollution cases occurring outside U.S. jurisdiction.
Results Achieved Needs to be Clearer, GAO-04-432, March 2004. Also see CRS Report
RS21125, Homeland Security: Coast Guard Operations — Background and Issues for
Congress, by Ronald O’Rourke.