Marine Pollution:

Progress Made to Reduce Marine Pollution by Cruise Ships, but Important Issues Remain

RCED-00-48: Published: Feb 28, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the actions being taken by federal regulators and the cruise ship industry to prevent future illegal discharges of waste, focusing on: (1) the nature and extent of reported illegal discharge cases for foreign-flagged cruise ships from 1993 through 1998; (2) federal agencies' efforts to prevent, detect, investigate, and prosecute illegal discharges from foreign-flagged cruise ships; (3) the actions cruise ship companies with proven illegal discharge violations have taken to prevent future illegal discharges; and (4) the views of relevant federal agencies and third-party interest groups regarding the actions that cruise ship companies have taken, and what issues, if any, they believe require further attention.

GAO noted that: (1) federal data indicate foreign-flagged cruise ships were involved in 87 confirmed illegal discharge cases in U.S. waters from 1993 through 1998; (2) overall, the number of confirmed illegal discharge cases by cruise ships in U.S. waters generally declined during this period; (3) oil or related chemicals were discharged in 81 cases and 6 cases involved discharges of garbage or plastic; (4) GAO determined that about three-fourths of these cases were accidental, while the remainder were either intentional or their cause could not be determined; (5) the Coast Guard, the Department of Justice, and other agencies undertake a variety of efforts to prevent, detect, investigate, or prosecute illegal marine discharges by foreign-flagged cruise ships; (6) the Coast Guard inspects ships in port, watches them as part of aircraft surveillance in the open sea, investigates reported incidents and adjudicates cases under its civil penalty procedures; (7) however, the Coast Guard's ability to detect and resolve violations is constrained by the narrow scope of its routine inspections, a significant reduction in aircraft surveillance for marine pollution purposes, and a breakdown of the process for identifying and resolving alleged violations referred to flag states; (8) twelve cruise ship companies that have been involved in nonaccidental pollution cases have implemented new or updated environmental plans designed to enhance ship safety and prevent pollution; (9) the plans, which were prepared pursuant to new international standards or were mandated by U.S. district courts after the companies pled guilty to pollution violations, call for such steps as regular third-party verification of ships' compliance with environmental procedures; (10) officials from the Coast Guard, the Department of Justice, and the Center for Marine Conservation said that cruise ship companies were making progress toward changing a maritime culture that once permitted discharges of garbage and oil from ships before international standards and U.S. laws to control such discharges were adopted; (11) however, cruise ship companies must demonstrate a sustained commitment to eliminate illegal discharges at sea; and (12) some officials expressed concern about the large volume of wastewater from sinks, showers, drains, and sewage systems that cruise ships legally discharge at sea and the possible effects of these discharges on sensitive marine life.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Subsequent to our report, the Coast Guard initiated discussion with the International Council of Cruise Lines on the need for improved water quality standards. In addition, the Coast Guard formed an interagency workgroup with other concerned federal agencies (EPA, NOAA, Justice, State, and MARAD) to find ways to better control and regulate waste streams caused by cruise ships including gray water discharges. Finally, the Coast Guard has engaged state agencies, particularly Alaska, to set up voluntary standards on limits, conditions on gray and black water discharges, and sampling and testing procedures.

    Recommendation: To improve oversight of the cruise ship industry, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to initiate discussions with the cruise ship industry, other federal and state agencies, and environmental groups, as appropriate, on the need for improved water quality standards for gray water and black water discharged from cruise ships and other vessels and assess the need to periodically monitor the water quality of these discharges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Through its membership on International Maritime Organization committees, the Coast Guard has encouraged member countries to respond when pollution cases are referred to them, recognizing that the laws and enforcement policies of foreign governments vary considerable. According to the Coast Guard, the agency will, when appropriate and in consultation with the Department of State, forward apparent MARPOL violation cases to foreign governments for their prosecution.

    Recommendation: To improve oversight of the cruise ship industry, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to, in its capacity as a lead agency for the United States at the International Maritime Organization, work vigorously within the organization, using whatever means are available, to encourage the member countries to comply with procedures requiring flag states to respond when pollution cases are referred to them. To effectively accomplish this, the Coast Guard needs to renew efforts to develop and refer to the Department of State alleged pollution cases occurring outside U.S. jurisdiction and make greater efforts to periodically follow up on these alleged cases.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Coast Guard, the agency reexamined their aircraft surveillance and made technology improvements to enhance the Coast Guard's ability to detect, classify, and identify surface targets. For example, the existing HC-130H Airborne Sensor with Palletized Electronic Reconnaissance Systems and CASPER-like sensor upgrades in a portion of the HU-25A fleet, along with ongoing night vision improvements to Coast Guard aviation assets, may yield an increase in the number of pollution violations detected and prosecuted.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to reexamine ways--within existing resources and without detracting from other primary missions--to provide more effective aircraft surveillance of cruise ships and other commercial vessels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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