Cruise line to pay ‘largest ever’ £31m fine for dumping of oil waste

Princess Cruise Lines Ltd has been ordered to pay a US$40-million (£31-million) penalty after pleading guilty to seven federal charges in an American illegal ocean pollution case that involved the use of a ‘magic pipe’ to divert oily waste into the sea.

In a single day – 26 August 2013 – the 952-foot cruise liner the Caribbean Princess illegally discharged more than 4,000 gallons of oily waste off the English coast. The US Justice Department said that the penalty is the largest-ever criminal penalty involving deliberate vessel pollution.

Cruise line to pay ‘largest ever’ £31m fine for dumping of oil waste
The Caribbean Princess in 2010
Princess Cruises, which has its headquarters in Southampton, is a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise company. Court documents showed illegal practices were found on four other Princess ships – the Star Princess, Grand Princess, Coral Princess and Golden Princess – including use of clean ocean water to fool on-board sensors that would otherwise detect dumping of improperly contaminated bilge water.

Authorities say cost saving was the motive and that the ship’s officers and crew conspired to cover up the illegal waste management.

In addition to the fine, as part of the plea agreement, 78 cruise ships from eight of the Carnival cruise line brands including Carnival, Holland America and Seabourn, will be under a court supervised environmental compliance programme for five years, which will be overseen by a judge.

Use of illegal ‘magic pipe’ was covered up

A US investigation into Princess Cruises had been taking place for several years, and was initiated after a new engineer on board the Caribbean Princess alerted the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) that a so-called ‘magic pipe’ had been used to illegally discharge oily waste 23 miles off the coast of England. 

The court heard that the 3,192-passenger ship had been discharging oily waste into the sea since 2005 through a ‘magic pipe’ that bypassed required pollution prevention equipment.

When using the ‘magic pipe’, engineers ran clean seawater through the oily water separator equipment in order to create a digital record to account for the missing waste.

The engineer who reported the pipe quit his position when the ship reached Southampton. After a tip-off from British authorities, the ship was examined in New York in September 2013, and the investigation found that the chief engineer and senior first engineer had ordered a cover-up, including the removal of the magic pipe and directing subordinates to lie. Engineers were told by the chief engineer that it cost too much to properly offload the waste in port, the US Justice Department said.

‘More than just bad actors on one ship’

In a statement, Princess admitted that its shore-side management failed to provide and exercise sufficient supervision and management controls to prevent or detect criminal violations by Caribbean Princess crew members.

‘Although we had policies and procedures in place it became apparent they were not fully effective’, the statement said. ‘We are very sorry that this happened and have taken additional steps to ensure we meet or exceed all environmental requirements.’

Princess has said it has undertaken remedial measures in response to the government’s investigation, including upgrading the oily water separators and oil content monitors on every ship in its fleet and instituting many new policies.  

If approved by the court, $10 million of the $40-million criminal penalty will be devoted to community service projects to benefit the maritime environment, while $1 million will be earmarked for projects to benefit the marine environment in UK waters. 

Commenting on the case, US Assistant Attorney General John C Cruden said: “The pollution in this case was the result of more than just bad actors on one ship. It reflects very poorly on Princess’s culture and management. This is a company that knew better and should have done better.”

U S Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, Florida, Wifredo A Ferrer, said: “Today’s case should send a powerful message to other companies that the US government will continue to enforce a zero tolerance policy for deliberate ocean dumping that endangers the countless animals, marine life and humans who rely on clean water to survive.”

Cruising for a bruising (of our seas)

The cruise industry carries around 20 million passengers a year, and is a much more carbon-intensive form of travel than the long-haul flight: estimates from carbon offsetter Climate Care find cruise liners emit nearly twice as much CO2 per passenger mile as aeroplanes.

Marine charity Oceana, meanwhile, estimates air pollution (from onboard incinerators and burning fuel) from a cruise ship equates to that from 12,000 automobiles, though other estimates place the figure as high as 350,000.

An average cruise ship generates over 30 litres of sewage per person per day and while ships are required to be fitted with devices to clean black water, raw sewage is permitted to be dumped anywhere beyond three miles of the coast.

The oily bilge waste that Princess Cruises has been found to have illegally disposed of comes from a ship’s engines and fuel systems. Instead of being dumped straight into the ocean, it is supposed to be offloaded when a ship is in port and either burned in an incinerator or taken to a waste facility. Sometimes, bilge water can be discharged into the ocean but only after almost all oil is separated out.

In 2011, Dr Ross A Klein, sociologist and founder of the International Centre for Cruise Research, told Resource that, whilst many cruise ships have waste management plans in place that claim they will reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible, there is a “history of claims being greater than accomplishments and where branding is contradictory to behaviour”.

He suggested that the problem is that sustainability has certain costs (e.g. better systems for treatment of all wastes) and these costs are inconsistent with offering a holiday at bargain basement prices, with the industry placing continued high profits above implementing the types of systems that would reflect their many claims.

More information is available in Resource’s in-depth look at the impact of the cruise industry on the marine environment.

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