People stand behind protest signs they're holding, including a white banner with black and red text and several yellow triangular signs that mimic traffic signs, that say things like "Cruising toward Climate Collapse." A white cruise ship against a blue sky is in the background.

‘Seattle Cruise Control’ Coalition Aims to Cancel Cruises

by Alex Garland 


Seattle has a new group of concerned citizens, and their sole focus is getting cruise ships out of Puget Sound. The “Seattle Cruise Control” (SCC) coalition has activists from multiple non-governmental organizations coming together for a “Cruise Free Salish Sea.” 

According to a press conference on Monday, July 19, at Smith Cove Park, SCC’s concerns are centered around the cruise industry’s lax environmental standards and poor labor practices. Cruise ships in Seattle are a divisive issue, with many pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars the industry brings to the region, while others say the damage to the climate and those who work on ships or live near their berths isn’t worth the profits.

A group of environmental advocates gather during a July 19, 2021, press conference held at Smith Cove Park to denounce the pollution caused by the cruise industry. (Photo: Alex Garland)

The Port of Seattle commissioner and current president, Fred Felleman, thinks it’s good that people have taken up the torch to elevate concerns of wash water and scrubbers. Scrubbers allow ocean vessels like cruise ships to continue burning cheaper high-sulfur fuel oil (HSFO) while still meeting the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) mandate to reduce global sulfur emissions due to shipping that became effective Jan. 1, 2020. Scrubbers use water to “scrub” smokestack exhaust before it’s released into the air. This water is known as “wash water.” 

Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (LSFO) is an option but is significantly more expensive, nearly $100 more per marine ton. On average, a cruise ship at full power burns 66,000 gallons of fuel per day, which is about 250 metric tons. On a full day, that’s an additional $25,000 in fuel costs to burn fuel that’s less damaging for the environment. The cumulative costs for environmental degradation are not so easy to calculate. 

Although there are regulations to prevent the dumping of sewage and grey water (relatively clean waste water from baths, sinks, washing machines, and other kitchen appliances) in Washington waters, this scrubbed water can be discharged. As water has no boundary, this highly acidic discharge may find its way to Elliott Bay. Before he was elected to the Port commissioner position, Felleman himself took up the task of preventing scrubbed water from being dumped in Elliott Bay. “I’m glad this is an issue.” According to Felleman, every three years, the memorandum of understanding (a non-legally binding agreement between the state, major cruise ship lines, and the Port of Seattle) is updated, and this is the year where amendments can be added. 

“They haven’t finalized,” Felleman says. “What they’re being asked is to hold the wash water from the scrubbers. Traditionally it has been about grey water and black water [sewage]. This hasn’t been dismissed [wash water] because it isn’t a sewage type product, but no decision has been made. Now [that] the [non-governmental organizations] have put it on the table, I will work on it. I cannot work on closing the door to cruise ships. I can work to make it the greenest port possible.”

Felleman, whose reason for running for Port commissioner in 2016 was “making sure the Exxon Valdez doesn’t happen here,” has advocated for extra safety precautions and requirements on the movement of oil. 

“I was committed to enforcing laws that had restrictions on tankers,” Felleman says, “but I wasn’t closing the door on tankers. Advocating for alternative fuels but concurrently making the case for safety.” 

For Felleman, that leaves a lot of grey area regarding cruise ships in the Port of Seattle. “Before ECA [Environmentally Critical Areas regulation], which requires lower sulphur fuels, the Port had a policy that you would either use low-sulphur fuel or use shore power. We were giving them a choice. We were the first cruise port in the country that had two electrified berths. While [Pier] 66 doesn’t have shore power, it will in a year or two. If you can reduce or eliminate all air emissions while next to population centers, it’s a reduction in human health exposure.”

A cruise ship releases smoke during a July 9, 2021, tour. (Photo: Alex Garland)

But the COVID-19 collapse in oil prices last year sent the price spread between the two types of fuels to new lows, making the economics of using scrubbers less viable.

With oil prices now on the rise, scrubbers are becoming more attractive again, said Peter Sand, shipping association, BIMCO’s, chief shipping analyst.

According to Felleman, Pier 66 was built 21 years ago when shore power requirements didn’t exist. Now the Port is putting in an elaborate system of underwater umbilical power lines, which are expected to be operational in 2023.

Activists with SCC say that’s too little too late. Dr. Anne Marie Dooley with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility had a message for the Port of Seattle. 

“We all want, after the COVID pandemic, to go back to normal,” Dooley said. “I, as a doctor, want this too, but there was no normal to begin with. It wasn’t a normal economy that allowed pollution from cruise ships as another part of business, as implied by one of our port commissioners in The Seattle Times yesterday. We have a lot of knowledge, but I’m asking for action.” 

The comment Dooley is referring to came from Fred Felleman in a Seattle Times article

“We’re in the cruise ship business, and if we’re going to be in it, I want to make it as green as we can. I’m not saying ‘go take a cruise’ — but if you are going to take a cruise, this is the place to do it.”

Norwegian Cruise Lines signed a 15-year lease with the Port of Seattle for Pier 66 in 2015, just before Felleman was elected to the Port. Felleman had a problem with Norwegian not sharing the cost of Terminal 18’s $20 million expense to electrify and says, “I’ve been assured that Norwegian will be sharing the cost for the length of their lease to electrify that terminal. Right now, Norwegian is burning low-sulphur fuel. Those ships are not scrubbing and we aren’t sharing costs with them.”

It seems, though, that the cruise ships do what they want anyway. When pushed about a ship at Pier 66 scrubbing, Felleman responded, “I said to the Port, said what’s going on here, and that was eliminated.”

Stacy Oaks, a spokesperson for SCC, reminded the media that the Port of Seattle’s 2021 season is called “Cruise Healthy” and that it’s far from accurate. According to Oaks, “using information from the 2019 Seattle to Alaska cruise season, we are able to determine that the greenhouse gas impact of that six-month season of cruise sailings and their associated airline flights is equivalent to about one third of the City of Seattle’s emissions for the entire year. This impact from non-essential leisure activity, when we face unprecedented danger of climate collapse in our lifetime, is inexcusable.” 

Oaks then connected the cruise industry to fossil fuel extraction. “Along with worsening the climate crisis,” Oaks said, “continuing to support fossil-fuel-laden industries also means being complicit in the harms and injustices that comes with fracking, pipelines running through Indigenous lands like we see happening in Minnesota with Line 3, with toxic refineries and distribution hubs, like we see just south of us on the ancestral tide flats of the Puyallup Tribe, known today as the Port of Tacoma.”

Longtime labor advocate Bob Barnes spoke to the issue of the labor practices of cruise ships and the harm caused by flying “flags of convenience,” which under maritime law allows ship-owners the choice of basing their ship anywhere in the world. The ship, the passengers, and the crew all fall under the jurisdiction of the country of whichever flag the ship is sailing under. “Labor laws in the Bahamas offer workers very little protection, and the vast majority of cruise ship workers come from countries that have weak and laxly enforced labor laws. Only about 5% of cruise ship seafarers are U.S. citizens, as labor costs are almost five times higher for vessels flying the U.S. flag than those flying the flag of convenience.”

To some, it appears activists are bringing up issues like fair labor practices and environmental protections that are important to Seattle voters. To others, it looks like drawing a line in the sand with no room for negotiation or compromise. With three Port commissioner positions coming up for a vote this fall, candidates’ stances on cruise ships may play a pivotal role in their campaigns. 

Felleman, who isn’t currently up for election (he was elected again in 2020 and his current term ends December 1, 2023), wants to work with the community and says his door is “always open.” Says Felleman, “I’m not a politician, I am an elected official. I’m here to do public service with every ounce of clout I can muster. If there’s a tool I can use, I will use it. The only thing I am being asked to do is close the door. I can’t help you if the only solution is nothing.”


Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. Follow him on Twitter.

📸 Featured Image: Local environmental advocates gather during a July 19, 2021, press conference held at Smith Cove Park to bring attention to pollution caused by cruise ships. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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