On June 10, a Royal Caribbean International ship on its way from Alaska to a stop in British Columbia accidentally discharged 20,000 gallons of contaminated water into Southeast Alaska waters, rekindling old tensions over the environmental impact of cruising.
The incident also raised new questions about the year-old program that puts Alaska ocean rangers on cruise ships.
According to Royal Caribbean, which voluntarily reported the incident to Alaskan authorities, the Rhapsody of the Seas discharged the gray water (water from cabin showers and sinks) into the Alexander Archipelago, in the mistaken belief that the ship was beyond Alaska state waters.
"This discharge is totally unacceptable," said Jamie Sweeting, vice president for environmental stewardship at Royal Caribbean. "It runs counter to everything we're doing to protect Alaska's waters and oceans worldwide."
Royal Caribbean said the mistake was realized a week after it had occurred, during a routine review of the ship's environmental procedures. The line suspended the Rhapsody's captain and environmental officer while it investigates the incident.
Besides violating Alaska law, the incident exposed the fact that there was no ocean ranger on the vessel at the time of the discharge.
An Alaska citizens ballot passed in 2006 directed the state legislature to enact a law requiring an ocean ranger to be present at all times on cruise vessels with more than 250 passengers sailing in Alaska waters.
The ocean rangers, licensed state marine engineers, are supposed to have unfettered access to the cruise ships' pollution-control practices and equipment.
However, in the program's second year, it has become clear that for various reasons the rangers are not always on these large cruise ships. The primary reason appears to be a lack of program funding.
But the program appears to have other issues, as well. Shortly after the Royal Caribbean incident occurred, an unrelated status report on the ocean ranger program revealed that the rangers identified their most significant challenge as restricted access "to the spaces they are tasked with observing."
The June 23 report was prepared for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the government agency that oversees the program, by the program's manager, Paul Johnsen.
Johnsen said that rangers were at times not allowed to accompany the ship's environmental officer on daily rounds, were given limited access to logs and other records and were prevented by the cruise lines from talking to the engineers who run the equipment.
Further, the rangers believed that Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, the two largest cruise operators in Alaska, had issued guidelines to the crew "on how to restrict and control the observations of the ranger."
"There are no hard feelings between the rangers and the onboard crews," Johnsen wrote. "But the results are still unacceptable."
Holland America and Princess both said that based on the report, they had made changes to their policies that would give rangers better access. However, both also said they needed to balance the needs of the rangers with the safety of the ship and other responsibilities of the crew.
HAL also noted that prior to the report being issued, it had not received any complaints from the DEC or the ocean rangers concerning access issues that were not resolved following discussion with the vessel. "Consequently, Holland America Line had no reason to believe that some ocean rangers felt unduly constrained."
The report quickly prompted two citizens groups in Alaska to file an intent to sue the cruise lines for the alleged restriction of ocean ranger access.
The two plaintiffs groups, Responsible Cruising in Alaska and Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters, are both platforms for Gershon Cohen, one of the drafters of the 2006 ballot that put the rangers on the ship and levied a host of taxes on cruise passengers and lines.
"Alaska still doesn't have complete ranger coverage on cruise ships," Cohen said. He said that the Royal Caribbean discharge, combined with the status report, "shows that the industry had learned nothing in eight years about the need for transparency and honesty in its dealing with the people of Alaska."
Nonetheless, Denise Koch, the DEC's cruise ship program manager, said the program was "generally working well."
"We have had cooperation and full access from most of the ships," she said. This is the first full year of the implementation of the program. ... We expected hiccups."
The ocean ranger program is run by Crowley Marine Services, a Florida-based company that hires and trains the rangers and provides the logistical support for placing them on the cruise ships.
Koch said that the DEC takes access "very seriously" and had taken up the issue with the cruise lines and the Alaska Cruise Association.
"We have started to receive some comments back from the ocean rangers that access has improved," she said.
Of course, in order to get that access, a ranger has to be on the ship. As the Royal Caribbean incident revealed, the rangers are not on the cruise ships all the time.
Koch said the budget was to blame. As the Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative stipulated, the ranger program is funded with $4 of the $50 head tax that each cruise passenger is assessed.
Revenue from that fee is expected to total about $4 million this year, which will be used to pay the rangers and buy berths on the ships.
The DEC said rangers were scheduled to ride on 89% of the large cruise ships in Alaska, or 459 out of 517 voyages this year. When rangers are not riding the ships, in-port ship inspections are done while the vessels are docked.
"We have a budget, and we can't spend more money than we have," Koch said. "We would need more money to get an ocean ranger present on every single cruise ship every single time it's in Alaska for a continuous ride."
Cohen said that the funding shortfall was a result of the Alaska legislature's not forward-funding the program in advance of the head taxes being available.
"The legislature has no excuse," he said. "Certain members are more concerned with maintaining campaign contributions than upholding the state's laws."
Citing Murphy's Law, Koch said that the day before the Rhapsody of the Seas' discharge occurred, an ocean ranger had been on the ship during an in-port inspection in Skagway. Since the ship was then going all the way to Canada, a ranger was not placed onboard.
Koch declined to comment further on the Royal Caribbean incident while the DEC is investigating it.
Timing of report criticized
Had an ocean ranger been onboard, he or she would not have been able to prevent the discharge. But a ranger might have noticed it in the logbook and reported to the DEC sooner.
What troubles Cohen and other environmental activists is that it took a week to report the mistake.
Sweeting, Royal Caribbean's vice president for environmental stewardship, said the ship's crew had intended to discharge the gray water outside of Alaska waters and had traveled four miles from shore to do so. Along most of Alaska's coastline, four miles out is no longer state waters. However, within the Alexander Archipelago, where the incident occurred, state waters extend beyond four miles.
Sweeting said the error was discovered during a routine review of the ship's discharge practices and policies. An ocean ranger was onboard at the time of the review and was informed of the mistake.
While asserting that the discharged gray water posed no threat to the environment, Sweeting also said Royal Caribbean was taking the incident very seriously.
"I'm pretty livid," he said. "We will go to every extent that is necessary to make sure this never happens again. If that means we need to rewrite our policy and procedures, we will."
Sweeting, who joined Royal Caribbean in April, previously worked at Conservation International. He said it was the first such incident of which he was aware.
"It is disappointing, because as a company we really are committed to minimizing any kind of impact we could possibly have on the natural environment, both as a commitment to conservation and a recognition that it is vital to our business," he said.