Photo depicting a cruise ship docked along one of Seattle's Port terminals.

OPINION: Impact of Cruises on Puget Sound Waterways and Beyond

by Tom Barnard, Iris Antman, and Jordan Van Voast

They’re doing the right thing, for the wrong reason. The Port of Seattle has decided that cruise demand in the foreseeable future does not warrant the construction of another cruise terminal adjacent to Pioneer Square and instead plans to promote Terminal 46 (T46) for other uses, primarily cargo. It’s possible that cruise ships’ dismal track record on health and the environment played a part in the cancellation, but, more likely, the change of plans was a business decision.

This is a partial victory for healthy air and oceans, although Seattle’s two existing cruise terminals can still accommodate over 300 ships a year — the Port’s 2022 schedule is for 296 ships, a 50% increase from 2019, the last pre-pandemic season. Misled by ubiquitous ads that show cruise ships in pristine-looking waters amid breathtaking scenery, most people are unaware of the immense damage cruising causes. In 2019, cruise ships departing from the Port carried more than half a million passengers, and that number will likely increase this year, leading to severe overcrowding along the Seattle waterfront, strained infrastructure in small Alaskan communities, negative impacts to local small businesses, and increased pollution and climate effects. While cruise ships make up less than 1% of the global shipping fleet, they produce a disproportionate amount of its harmful pollution: 6% of its black carbon emissions (a pollutant that contributes to heart and lung disease, climate change, and rapid decline in Arctic sea ice) and nearly a quarter of all shipping waste

Photo depicting a group of kayaks protesting by the Port of Seattle carrying a banner that reads "Port of Seattle: Create Solutions Not Pollution."
(Photo: Neal Anderson)

In 2019, the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and the University of Colorado Boulder released a study identifying Seattle as the U.S. city with the highest per-capita level of premature deaths due to ship emissions. It seems plausible that cruise ship emissions have an impact on the higher cancer rates of South End neighborhoods compared with the rest of Seattle, particularly when the wind blows from the northwest.

Traveling by even the most efficient cruise line is three to four times worse for the climate per passenger mile than flying, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, and most passengers compound the damage by arriving and departing by air. Recent calculations by Elizabeth Burton, who has a doctorate in mathematics, reveal that in 2019, Seattle’s six-month cruise season was responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equal to one-third of those produced by the entire city over the course of that whole year.

Cruise ships pollute water as well as air. A typical ship on a seven-day Seattle-to-Alaska voyage generates an astonishing 50 million gallons of polluted water; the entire Alaska fleet generates over 8 billion gallons each season. Since Canada’s environmental regulations are weaker than those in Alaska and Washington State, most of this pollution is dumped into the ocean off the Canadian coast, harming human health, aquatic organisms, and coastal ecosystems. Over 95% of this liquid pollution — which includes human sewage, greywater, and oily bilge water — is warm and acidic, and contains heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants that can cause cancer and damage DNA.

The list of other cruise offenses is long: underwater noise that interferes with orcas’ ability to communicate and locate food, whales killed by collisions with ships, toxic hull coatings that poison marine life, profoundly exploitative labor practices, avoidance of U.S. taxes and regulations by sailing under “flags of convenience,” and, of course, the spreading of infectious diseases, notably COVID-19.

The negative impacts of cruise travel are mostly ignored due to a general acceptance of business as usual and constant greenwashing by cruise companies and the Port itself. Although the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing effect on the cruise industry, coupled with the growing demand for cargo space, were probably the major factors in killing the third terminal plan, one cannot dismiss the consistent citizen advocacy efforts of many people offering public comment at Port Commission meetings over the past two-plus years in opposition to expanding cruise traffic. 

Photo depicting Jordan Van Voast in bicycle-riding gear posing next to cardboard protest signs put up along the railing by a docked cruise ship.
Jordan Van Voast, a co-founder of Seattle Cruise Control, pictured with signs protesting for a #CruiseFreeSalishSea. Photo courtesy of Jordan Van Voast.

Seattle Cruise Control members believe the cancellation of the third cruise terminal is a significant win for the global climate movement, the broader movement for equity, and the Puget Sound environment, which the Port claims to prioritize. In a time of heat domes and massive wildfires, when our Port, City, County, and State have all committed to rapidly reducing the emissions that accelerate climate change, it made no sense for the Port to invest in expanding a nonessential activity that dramatically increases these emissions and their dangerous impacts. 

Having canceled this ill-advised project, the Port of Seattle is now uniquely poised to lead the way to a new green economy with broadly shared local prosperity. As Seattle Cruise Control and its partners work toward that vision, we urge the Port to invest in projects that enhance our communities rather than those that cause extensive harm. For example, Port Commission President Ryan Calkins has mentioned the idea of using T46 as a staging area for offshore wind turbine development.

Whatever new enterprise the Port undertakes at T46, it must use this opportunity to reflect on the environmental comet that is coming for us all — to borrow a metaphor from the movie Don’t Look Up.

Transforming Port priorities will be nearly impossible under its current charter. The original authorizing legislation was created over a century ago, before we understood the importance of environmental justice, the vulnerability of Salish Sea ecosystems, and the existential threat of the global climate catastrophe. We are urging the Port to work with the State Legislature to redefine the mission of all Washington State ports. Revising the authorizing legislation to include broader goals for economic and environmental justice, pollution reduction, and creating “green” jobs is long overdue.

With the recent launch of our #CruiseFreeSalishSea campaign, we are recommending that the Port develop a plan to phase out its remaining cruise business as a source of Port revenue, given its many harmful impacts on the world’s oceans, air, climate, and public health.

The Port of Seattle can do the right thing for the right reason. We’ll be encouraging them and asking other climate, environmental justice, and ocean advocacy groups to do the same.

We invite South Seattle Emerald readers to join our efforts. Help ensure that our neighborhoods are livable and pollution-free by visiting us on our website, where you can learn how to give public comment at Port Commission meetings, sign up for email updates, and learn more.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Former Port of Seattle policy analyst Tom Barnard, retired nurse practitioner Iris Antman, and acupuncturist Jordan Van Voast are founding members of Seattle Cruise Control, a volunteer organization working toward a cruise-free Salish Sea.

📸 Featured Image: Misled by ubiquitous ads that show cruise ships in pristine-looking waters amid breathtaking scenery, most people are unaware of the immense damage cruising causes. (Photo: Jordan Van Voast)

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