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Judith Lewis Mernit | Feb 14, 2012 10:00 AM

California State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) remembers the day he picked up a local newspaper and read the shocking news: A 940-passenger cruise ship had chucked a 18-ton load of sewage, dirty water and oily bilge perilously near to the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary off the California coast. Simitian, then serving in the California Assembly, was outraged, as were many of his constituents: The ship’s captain had broken a written promise to the city of Monterey with the dumping, and the city thereafter banned that cruise line from their port.

Crystal Symphony cruise shipSimitian wanted to go farther than that. The Crystal cruise ship’s dumping was bad form and in violation of a local agreement, but it wasn’t strictly against the law.  “There was universal surprise” about that, the Senator told reporters on a conference call. “Repeatedly people would say to me, ‘you mean this kind of behavior isn’t currently allowed, is it?’ And I’d say, ‘Actually, it is.’”

On Thursday, February 9, Simitian finally got what he was after: A federally enforceable ban on any kind of discharging from ships larger than 300 tons three miles off any point along the entire California coast. “It may have taken us some years to get here,” he admitted, “but the California coast is now protected in perpetuity ... we are now looking at the largest no-discharge zone in the nation.” It is, he declared, “an extraordinary accomplishment.”

That it is. The historic prohibition’s public health benefits are not quantifiable, because “there isn’t sufficient modeling to work out within the marine environment what the benefits are,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest division. But neither are those benefits trivial: There is an obvious benefit to no longer emptying 22.5 million gallons of sewage into coastal waters.

Marine life will do better as well. As California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Matt Rodriquez pointed out, even treated sewage contains large amounts of nutrients that feed algae, which starves the marine environment of oxygen. The new law addresses “one of the gaps in our coastal protections,” Rodriguez said.

As a Southern Californian who spends a cumulative several minutes each year pinned underwater with seawater rushing into my sinuses -- in other words, I surf -- I take this sort of thing personally. I want to know that I'm not going to contract some stomach virus of mysterious etiology once that big wave spits me out, or need a heart-valve replacement in 20 years (viral myocarditis, caused by a virus that lurks in sewage, is a well-known malady among ocean swimmers).  And so I hope that the no-discharge zone is the just the start of a much more aggressive effort to keep sewage out of sensitive marine habitat and surf. Because certainly some yawning gaps in coastal protections still remain. Simitian had been nicking away at coastal pollution from ships for years when he wrote the no-discharge law, called the California Clean Coast Act, in 2005. He had already authored bills banning onboard incineration and the discharge of ballast water that could contain invasive species, and written a key law prohibiting sewage discharge in California's four marine sanctuaries.

But he couldn't get at everything: States only have the authority to ban raw sewage, oily bilge and cruise-ship passengers’ dirty sink-and-shower runoff; federal law presides over treated sewage. All Simitian's law could do, after then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it in 2006, was require the state water board to petition the EPA for permission to establish a no-discharge zone.

That’s a long and involved process, for sure -- the EPA had to first propose the rule and then take public comments, notably from the shipping industry, where there were concerns about cost and complexity. And EPA didn’t even start that process until the late summer of 2010: The agency under the Bush administration simply never took it up.

Monterey Bay Marine SanctuaryBy that time, local activism and pressure on the cruise and shipping industries had pretty much put an end to wastewater discharge in the three-mile zone -- three miles is the limit of the state's legal jurisdiction, but it's just not that far. And Simitian had already addressed the sewage-dumping incident that so alarmed him in 2003, when he successfully pushed through a law banning any kind of dumping in marine sanctuaries, which is where the cruise ship Crystal Harmony was when it dumped its wastewater into the ocean. Crystal Cruise Ships’ Mimi Weisband told the Los Angeles Times back then that the company had broken a promise and violated “our corporate standard." But “we didn’t break any law,” she said, because the ship was 14 miles off the coast.

Outside of a sanctuary, they wouldn't have broken one even if they did it today. As the creatures that inhabit the ocean don't strictly recognize the boundaries of California's four sanctuaries, the various laws seems more noble than strictly protective.

Nor does the ocean recognize state or national boundaries. It's not enough for dumping to be declared illegal near the ports of Los Angeles and Oakland; Puget Sound and Tijuana have to ban it, too (and according to Blumenfeld, various negotiations to establish no-discharge zones in Washington State and Mexico are afoot). Personally, however, I won't be happy until cruise ship operators figure out a way to do what responsible backpackers do in true wilderness — pack it up and pack it out. 

One federal lawmaker’s bill, however, would do a little better: Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), who represents California’s Central Coast, has authored legislation that would extend the dumping ban for cruise ships as far as 12 miles offshore, and allow only treated sewage to be released beyond that point. Introduced in some form almost every year since 2005, the “Clean Cruise Ship Act” has never made it to the floor for a vote, and the cruise ship industry has spent close to $10 million in four years lobbying against it and another marine-pollution laws. Which I suppose isn't surprising when you're talking about protecting a whole 12 miles of water off the coast. Consider how long it took just to protect three.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News.

Image of Crystal Symphony ship courtesy Crystal Cruises.

Image of Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary courtesy Flickr user Bob Aronson.

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