When the environmental authorities say "jump", the cruise industry usually replies: "how high?" But in the case of the US state of Alaska’s wastewater discharge standards, the cruise industry’s definition of high is not high enough.

Alaska has the strictest standards in the world for wastewater quality at the point of discharge, particularly in regard to effluent limits for ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc. The Alaskan statute, introduced three years ago, originally decreed that ships cruising in Alaskan waters had to meet these standards by this year, but a panel discussion of marine technologists, vendors and scientists held in Alaska’s capital of Juneau in February 2009, conducted by the Alaskan Department of
Environmental Conservation, revealed the cruise industry simply did not have the technology or means to meet these standards in the timeframe.

However, a bill has been approved that will, pending a signature from the state’s governor, give cruise lines up to an additional five years to meet the standards. While many cruise lines are already committed to developing wastewater treatment systems to comply with the standards, it is unknown whether even the 2015 target will be met, the consequences of which could see major cruise lines pulling out of Alaskan waters.

Obstacles and issues

William Morani, vice-president of environmental compliance for Holland America Line (HAL), says that meeting the Alaska standards in the near term is, in short, impossible. "It’s like saying, ‘we want you to find a cure for cancer, and you’ve got a couple of years to do it’," he says.

The main issue with the Alaskan law is to do with the targets set for reducing metals in cruise ship wastewater. Wastewater generated on a cruise ship inevitably has higher levels of ammonium and metals than that of a shore-based facility due to the conservation methods used on board, such as low-flow shower heads and vacuum toilet flushing systems.

“Alaska has the strictest standards in the world for wastewater quality at the point of discharge, particularly in regard to effluent limits for ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc.”

"It’s a catch-22," says Morani. "You try to conserve a resource at one end, and it catches you at the other." The Alaskan statute has taken a hard line with reducing metals content, setting targets that are well below those for land-based facilities. The challenge for the industry is to come up with a technology that treats the great volumes (up to 1,000m²) of effluent generated daily by a large cruise vessel to meet the targets.

But to date, not even a land-based system exists that can treat wastewater with the initial quality of that found on a cruise ship to the standards deemed acceptable by Alaskan law. "It’s like setting a standard that does not exist," says Morani.

Richard Pruitt, director of environmental programmes at Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL), argues that even if a suitable land-based technology had been invented, the process of adapting that technology to the unique ship environment – where space, stability and even crewing set-ups are a far cry from the spacious and predictable conditions on land – would take two years or more.

"These aren’t short timelines," says Pruitt, adding that the duration of developing
the technology increases the risks for all involved. "You might take a chance [on a system] only to find out three years from now it doesn’t meet the latest standards, and then you have to start over again." High costs also add to the risk. To date, RCCL, which includes cruise lines Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity and Azamara, has spent in excess of $100m on advanced wastewater treatment systems. The most limiting factor for developing the technology is space.

"Sewage treatment facilities [on land] usually have very large tanks and ponds, which give them the luxury of letting the water sit there and clarify; but we don’t have that luxury," says Pruitt. "We’re trying to get done in six or eight hours what land-based facilities have days to do. We have to figure out how to turbo-charge the process."

In the pipeline

While technology that reduces metal content in water continues to elude the industry, steps are being taken towards its development. HAL already has advanced wastewater treatment systems on 12 of its 15 ships that can, according to Morani, treat water to the quality of any sophisticated shore-side system, and is currently partnering with sister cruise line Princess Cruises, also part of the Carnival Corporation, to develop technology that will reduce ammonium in its wastewater.

“We’re trying to get done in six or eight hours what land-based facilities have days to do. We have to figure out how to turbo-charge the process.”

The company is also looking at how its use of laundry detergents and cleaning products could help reduce the impact on the environment. "We’re doing the best we can," says Morani. RCCL is testing two systems that Pruitt hopes might be developed into Alaska-standard compliant technologies. One system, by US company Navalis Environmental Systems, is currently being tested on the Rhapsody of the Seas. The system is a new version of an old process tested by RCCL in 2000
that involved oxidation with ozone coupled with a bioreactor (a living colony of beneficial bacteria).

The advantage of the Navalis system is that it does not require the use of a bioreactor, which makes it more time efficient (bioreactors can take months to replenish if they incur any trouble), while also reducing its footprint. But when breaking new ground, any R&D project is bound to hit a few walls.

"We really hoped this [system] would be something we could move forward on many of our ships. But we’ve run into some serious snags on the Rhapsody to get it to meet the
capacity," says Pruitt. "It’s one thing to say you can take grey water and black water and create near-drinking water, but it has to treat all of the water on board. We’re having some problems with getting the through-put that we need to treat all the water on board, so that probably will impact our self-imposed deadline for getting it done."

Other processes under trial by RCCL for treating wastewater include ion exchange and specific applications for reverse osmosis. While these are not new technologies, the process of using reverse osmosis after the wastewater treatment to further reduce ammonium levels is a new approach. "The problem [with that] is we’d have to install two advanced wastewater systems on a ship that barely has space to install one," says Pruitt.

If the Alaskan standards cannot be met by 2015, Morani anticipates the consequences will be drastic. "It may force us to move elsewhere or to find a different area to operate in," he says. HAL has eight ships sailing four itineraries in Alaska this year, but has reduced the number of sailings for the MS Amsterdam by ten, while Royal Caribbean International, which usually has three ships sailing the region, has announced it will redeploy its Serenade of the Seas from Alaska to San Juan in Puerto Rico.

Norwegian Cruise Line has similarly redirected the Norwegian Sun from Alaska to Europe. Economic reasons have been cited as the main grounds for itineraries moving out of Alaskan waters – but the strict discharging laws certainly won’t make it any easier or more inviting for cruise lines to make the move back in.