Canada used as ‘toilet bowl’ for toxic waste from cruise ships
Canada’s west coast has become a « toilet bowl » for sewage and toxic waste from cruise ships, according to a recent report by environmental groups.
The report, produced by British Columbia-based Stand.Earth and West Coast Environmental Law, found that cruise ships en route to Alaska from the United States were dumping around 31 billion liters of waste in Canadian waters. every year before COVID-19, including in protected areas.
This included sewage, such as human waste from toilets; gray water, which flowed from kitchens, showers, laundry and more; and scrubber washwater, which made up the majority of all cruise ship waste and is arguably the most damaging.
Canada: the cheapest option
All that toxic waste, which could fill about 12,400 Olympics–large pools, was deliberately dumped in Canada rather than in waters off Alaska or Washington State, taking advantage of this the country’s relatively lax maritime regulations, according to the report.
According to the report, the dumps included the Great Bear Sea, where endangered killer whale populations try to survive on dwindling salmon populations, while toxins and heavy metals slowly build up in their bodies.
Immediately after entering Alaskan waters, the ships stopped excreting as they were caught in the state’s comprehensive dumping regulations, the report said. They should save it for the return trip.
« Canadian regulations are the lower limit on the West Coast, » said Anna Barford, Canada’s shipping campaigner at Stand.Earth. « Our rules are 18 times less stringent than Alaska’s. »
In Alaska, ships must obtain permits before discharging sewage and gray water, and only after it has been treated with effective sanitation devices, she said. At the other end, Washington State has banned the dumping of even treated cruise ship waste in 6,000 square miles of protected ocean in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.
By comparison, Canada currently allows discharge of treated sewage three nautical miles from shore and untreated sewage only 12 nautical miles.
It is therefore much cheaper for cruise lines to simply dump in Canada. The alternatives were to either save it for an onshore treatment facility or install and maintain a more efficient waste treatment system, Barford said.
“We talk about American businesses because they’re so prevalent on this coast,” Barford said. « But the Canadian rules allow any vessel from anywhere in the world, including Canada, (and) they treat us like a toilet bowl, » Barford said.
What is scrubber washwater and why is it harmful?
According to the report, the vast majority of cruise waste is scrubber wastewater. During a single voyage, a large cruise ship could generate up to 200 million liters of sulfurous exhaust.
“We find that 97% of waste from ships comes from ships using scrubbers,” said Sam Davin, senior marine conservation and shipping specialist at the World Wildlife Fund.
Davin described the scrubbers as « loophole technology » that allows cruise lines to circumvent air pollution regulations by redirecting pollutants into the water instead. By spraying the flue gases with “wash water,” scrubbers are able to remove dangerous sulfur oxides and other pollutants from engine exhaust.
This allows cruise lines to continue to burn cheap fuel sources like heavy fuel oil to power their ships. Heavy fuel oil exhaust is too high in sulfur to meet air pollution regulations, but it’s fair to separate the sulfur and dump it in the ocean instead, Davin said.
« This resulting waste contains large amounts of heavy metals and carcinogenic compounds, » Davin said. « These substances can enter the marine environment, they can concentrate in marine wildlife, and they have the potential to cause excessive morbidity and mortality in wildlife populations. »
As toxins move up the food chain, humans will inevitably be affected, Davin continued. Those at particular risk are subsistence fishers who depend on fish off the coast of British Columbia to survive.
« Anytime you have contamination in the marine food web… anyone who eats seafood is at risk of exposure, » he said.
What is Canada doing about it?
In April 2022, Transport Canada announced new measures to curb the dumping of cruise ships into Canada during the 2022 cruise season.
These included “non-mandatory” regulatory updates, which included prohibiting the discharge of gray water (not just sewage) three nautical miles from shore; treat gray water with sewage if discharged between three and 12 nautical miles from shore; and that ships “strive” to use an approved sewage treatment device that minimizes faecal coliform bacteria, found in the digestive tract of animals, including humans, as well as in their feces. Water pollution caused by faecal contamination is a serious problem due to the risk of contracting diseases.
The new measures did not include any restrictions on scrubber washwaters. Instead, a Transport Canada spokesperson told the Star that they are « committed to working with the marine industry to develop a workable approach that can reduce washwater discharges into Canadian waters to the future ».
Otherwise, they said, « these measures align with and in some cases exceed those of the United States, including in Alaska, California and Washington State. »
The measures were « developed in coordination with the cruise industry and were implemented to coincide with the restart of the cruise industry in Canada, » the agency continued.
The spokesperson said Transport Canada is working with the cruise industry to implement its new measures on a mandatory basis starting in 2023. Their changes are currently enacted through an interim order, although Transport Canada says let them strive to make them permanent.
The dumping that occurs on the west coast represents only a fraction of the total waste injected into Canadian waters. In February 2022, the World Wildlife Fund released the first-ever report attempting to measure the total amount of sewage discharged from ships in Canada.
They estimate that ships collectively dump 147 billion liters of harmful waste each year into Canada’s three oceans. Cruise ships generate the majority of this waste, their report says.
How can Canada do better?
Moving forward, the Stand.Earth report recommends closing the scrubber loophole by mandating the use of cleaner, low-sulphur fuel sources as California has done since 2009.
They also recommend tightening standards for treated sewage and gray water, designating no-discharge zones in protected areas and mandating third-party monitoring to ensure ships follow the rules.
Sarah King, campaign manager on oceans and plastics at Greenpeace Canada, agreed with their recommendations, but said Canada also needed to take a more “holistic” approach to conservation.
« We really need to look at the laws that not only govern our oceans, but also our approach to protecting nature in general, » she said. Pollution from cruise ships is just one facet of a multitude of threats to Canada’s oceans, she continued.
“We hope that in the future…(Canada) will really look at the bigger picture, given the stress that our oceans and marine biodiversity are currently under, and start creating regulations and management plans accordingly. “, she said.
With COVID-19, Canada’s coasts have been given a reprieve, King said — but as restrictions are lifted, the cruise industry will come back to life.
“We had definitely hoped that the federal government would have taken the opportunity to improve regulations before the (cruise) industry resumed,” King said. « But unfortunately that didn’t happen. »
“There are so many threats at play right now. We need to start by stopping pollution from entering the environment and take bolder steps to regulate the industry and what it can and cannot do in a marine environment. already in trouble.
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