Cruise Ships Blacken Our Blue Skies

Because they can get away with it in Mexico

We love our cruise ships. And especially we love our cruise ship people, who spend a lot of money here with us. They spend more than most people realize, as many of the people are bused out to San Jose, Todos Santos, and all parts in between. Also, these cruise shippers are cleverly disguised as terrestrial tourists, Americans, and oh yes, because the week’s route costs only $500 there are no doubt a lot of Canadians. (Hold your cards and letters, kanucks, we’re just screwing with you. We feel the pain of your exchange rate).

Cruise ship smoking.jpgBut we are getting some heavy duty polluters riding at anchor in our bay, and they can and do spew icky stuff in the air, apparently with impunity. Check out the picture here of the Norwegian Jewel taken last week in Cabo. This pollution went on almost the entire time the ship was in port.

The amount of waste produced on these big ships, all of it 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 U.S. gallons of sewage; 1 million gallons of gray water from sinks, showers, and laundries, more than 130 gallons of hazardous wastes, eight tons of solid waste; and 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water. Those wastes, if not properly treated and disposed of, can pose risks to human health 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.

Our ships reposition in the summer, leaving us behind in order to go ply the Alaska/Vancouver/Seattle route. There, they have to tow the line or the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, (DEC), will fine them.

Between the start of 2010 and the end of 2014, this same Norwegian Jewel violated the state’s clean air regulations no less than 10 times. The Jewel’s offenses are among 49 violations affecting 19 ships over five years.

DEC took 1,312 readings at locations along their shore during that period and most were in compliance, showing the technology is there to be good citizens.

  Smoke from ships is often visible and can be different in appearance and can even be invisible.

Generally, the cause of black smoke is due to an imbalance in the air to fuel ratio. The black smoke is comprised of particulates, which are large fuel particles that are not broken down during combustion because of a lack of oxygen. And, maybe we can give them a small break here, as exhaust plumes from large engines are more visible than from small engines due to the greater diameter of the plume. At high loads most modern engines give very little smoke, but during low or transient loads, particularly during start up and manoeuvreing, the turbochargers deliver less air than is necessary for complete combustion and smoke is created. Smoke is highly undesirable.

The color of the smoke can vary depending on the different kinds of emissions in it, such as PM, NO2 and water vapor. Black smoke is primarily caused by soot (carbon particles) and there is a clear relationship between the type of fuel used and the intensity of the black smoke, as heavy fuel oil generates more particles and soot and thus more smoke than distillate fuels.

Blue smoke is a sign of the presence of incompletely burned droplets of fuel or lubrication oil.

Brown smoke comes from NO2. (Nitrogen dioxide), NO2 is also produced by autos and atmospheric nuclear tests, among other things as hum drum as kerosene heaters. NO2 is responsible for the reddish color of mushroom clouds.

White smoke is simply a sign of condensed water vapor present in the exhaust smoke. The white appearance is more pronounced in cold weather where condensation is greater.

The Alaska violations are all about the opacity of the emissions from ships’ exhaust stacks. If the smoke is too dark, the ship’s owner can be fined by the state of Alaska and required to fix the problem. DEC only monitors cruise ships within three miles of shore to uphold Alaska’s rules. And the number of violations has actually gone up. 2014 was a particularly bad year. Violators include ships from Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Silversea Cruises. In one case in Alaska Royal Caribbean was ordered to pay $250,000 fine. Ouch. We can just bet they sent for an engine mechanic after writing that check.

But landing hard on these polluters is not a simple answer either, because that can backfire as it did in Alaska.

In 2006 Alaska voters passed an initiative that imposed four new taxes on the cruise industry. The initiative changed environmental standards and compliance methods. It also required private businesses to disclose confidential business information, a law since reversed by the legislature.

As a result of this initiative, the cruise lines sent their ships elsewhere and Alaska’s tourism industry lost about 150,000 passengers in the 2010 cruise season. The cruise lines simply began moving to a more business friendly environment, and the mostly small Alaska businesses that depend on the summer activity generated by the passengers suffered terribly. Affected were hotels, restaurants, tours and merchants. When Governor Sean Parnell came into office the following year, he immediately rescinded most of the laws the industry was opposed to, and the ships have started coming back.

So, should we see this as a warning and let ships like the Norwegian Jewel burp their ugly black smoke into our pristine air?

I don’t know, I’m just asking.