woman standing in fron of a sigh saying Stop ship dumping

Cruise ships self-reported compliance with new wastewater guidelines to Transport Canada

National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The federal government says cruise ships operating in Canadian waters have overwhelmingly met the more stringent wastewater guidelines put in this spring.

However, critics say Transport Canada’s report is very light on details and the industry’s largest source of water pollution remains untreated. 

Transport Canada reported that 47 cruise ships travelling Canadian waters between April 9 and June 5 voluntarily reported on their compliance with the new thresholds for the treatment and dumping of wastewater, and only one failed to meet the new guidelines. 

A ship visiting ports in the Quebec-St. Lawrence and Atlantic regions only partially followed the new environmental measures because it did not have a grey water treatment system that could meet the new measures, and had to discharge grey water inside the minimum distance from shore to ensure the boat’s stability, Transport Canada said. 

Some vessels visited multiple regions, with 35 cruise ships travelling the Pacific coast, another 13 vessels visiting the Quebec-St. Lawrence and Atlantic regions, and five on the Great Lakes, Transport Canada said. 

In April, the federal government announced new voluntary discharge and treatment guidelines for sewage (black water) and grey water — which includes kitchen water, laundry detergent, cleaning products, food waste, cooking oils and grease as well as hazardous carcinogens and other pollutants — that are slated to become mandatory in 2023. 

The cruise ship industry injects more than $4 billion annually into the Canadian economy and creates about 30,000 direct and indirect jobs, particularly in the tourism sector, the federal agency said.

“Cruise ships are an important part of our economy and tourism sector, and we must all work together to reduce their impact on the environment and keep our waters safe and clean for everyone,” said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.

However, the cruise ship industry’s adherence to the guidelines is voluntary and the sector is allowed to self-report its compliance with the new wastewater measures, said Anna Barford, Stand.earth’s shipping campaigner.

The Transport Canada report lacks critical data needed to ensure the protection of Canada’s coastlines, Barford said. 

“It’s shocking… There’s simply no information in it,” she said.

For example, there are no details about which ships were in Canadian waters, their treatment systems, where they dumped wastewater, or how the federal government independently verified or ensured compliance, Barford said. 

It’s also not clear if the number of ships that voluntarily reported on compliance measures equals the number that travelled in Canadian waters.

Compliance with the new measures is verified during formal port inspections of vessels, Transport Canada spokesperson Sau Sau Liu told Canada’s National Observer in an email. 

However, the email did not clarify if, when or where any port inspections took place. 

When requesting the reporting data supplied by cruise ships to the federal government, Canada’s National Observer was informed Transport Canada will only publish aggregate data to demonstrate participation rates for the industry as a whole.   

Aside from transparency concerns, Canada’s new regulations don’t prohibit the discharge of sewage water, treated or not, in environmentally sensitive zones or marine protected areas, Barford said. 

U.S. Pacific states north and south of B.C. have more stringent rules, she said. 

California prohibits wastewater dumping less than three kilometres from shore and in National Marine Sanctuaries, and Washington state has established a sewage no-discharge zone in Puget Sound to protect the shellfish industry and human health.

What’s more, it appears the Canadian government failed to include regulations for scrubber wastewater, the largest source of water pollution, in the new guidelines after pressure from the cruise ship industry, she said. 

Scrubber discharge is created when cruise ships use dirty heavy fuel oil (HFO), but employ exhaust cleaning systems, or scrubbers, that use water to “wash” pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, carcinogens and heavy metals from exhaust and then flush them into the ocean rather than the atmosphere. 

The dumping of scrubber water is entirely avoidable if ships simply used, or were mandated to use, cleaner-burning fuels to meet international emission standards, Barford said.  

The acidic discharge includes heavy metals, which can accumulate in the food web and harm marine life, such as endangered southern resident killer whales, Barford said, adding more than 90 per cent of wastewater dumped by cruise ships involves scrubber discharge.

Transport Canada did not clarify if it had a concrete timeline for addressing scrubber wastewater. 

The federal government will continue to work with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to establish and harmonize rules on scrubber wastewater and intends to get input from industry and other partners on the issue this fall, Liu said. 

The recent wastewater measures exceed those set out by the IMO, said Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray, and demonstrates the federal commitment to protect oceans and create a more sustainable course for the tourism industry. 

But the federal government is comparing itself to the lowest thresholds of wastewater regulations, Barford said, adding Canada needs to at least match the more-stringent bar set by neighbouring Pacific coast states.  

“Canada has one of the longest coastlines of any nation-state in the world and we have thriving internal seas,” Barford said. 

“But if we continue to look for minimum standards and opportunities to pollute, instead of to protect, our ocean economy and coastal communities are at risk.” 

Top photo credit: Anna Barford, Stand.earth’s shipping campaigner, says Ottawa’s report on cruise ship compliance with new wastewater pollution guidelines lacks transparency. – Photo courtesy of Stand.earth

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