Charleston’s downtown economy got an unexpected preseason boost of economic juice last month. When three cruises aboard the Celebrity Mercury were either cut short or delayed by outbreaks of the norovirus, many with tickets were left stranded in town before returning home or heading out to sea. As a result, Holy City hotels and restaurants enjoyed an influx of vacationing landlubbers.

Cruises have called on Charleston since 1973, but with the makeover of the Union Pier terminal underway and a record 69 ships calling on or embarking from the peninsula in 2010, the presence of these behemoth passenger vessels downtown is set to increase quite dramatically. The Mercury holds about 2,000 people, while the Carnival Fantasy, which begins weekly embarkations from Charleston in May, accommodates around 3,000.

These miniature cities of vacationers can have a significant impact on local economies. Ships often pay fees to the ports and cities they visit, purchase supplies while in port, and send their passengers out to spend money in town.

A report released in February estimates the cumulative impact of the ships visiting Charleston in 2010 to total $37 million and support 407 full-time jobs. Commissioned by the State Ports Authority (SPA) and conducted by John Crotts and Frank Hefner of the College of Charleston, a hospitality expert and an economist, respectively, the study found that cruise ships will bring an additional 111,303 tourists to Charleston this year. In turn, these visitors will spend an estimated $5,552,496 while in town. Imagine the smiles on the sweetgrass basket ladies.

The SPA stands to benefit handsomely from the ships’ visits as well. Cruises that debark and embark from Charleston garner the port a $20 per passenger fee upon departure and arrival, as well as a $5 security fee each time the ship docks. That’s a total of $50 per passenger in fees for round-trip cruises, in addition to the $15 a day passengers pay to park their cars at the port. The Ports Authority is required by law to use these fees only for costs associated with accommodating the cruise ship, including the expansion of Union Pier.

But while many laud the economic benefits of the growing industry, others are wary of the potential environmental side effects and hidden costs, questioning whether Charleston is wise to embrace the industry with open arms.

The Coastal Conservation League went on the offensive against increasing cruise traffic, with newspaper editorials, e-mail campaigns, and a March 31 forum that featured a leading anti-cruise industry critic, Dr. Ross Klein. They argue that the industry’s policy and infrastructure upgrades don’t excuse a history of environmental violations.

Indeed, hosting thousands of people to heartily eat, drink, and, um, relieve themselves for a week on the high seas is bound to generate a host of waste streams requiring treatment and disposal. Although ships are quite good at handling this by now, accidents do occur. Furthermore, cruise ships burn the same dirty bunker fuel (basically the leftover product of refining petroleum) used in every other giant ocean-going vessel, releasing carcinogen-filled soot into the air wherever they idle at a dock.

So are concerns about cruise ships’ effects on air and water quality valid?

Garbage In, Garbage Out

After the first round of news coverage about the stomach bug ailing the Mercury, the Charleston Waterkeeper nonprofit received a slew of e-mails from citizens worried about raw, infected sewage being dumped into the harbor. That was far from the case — both Carnival and Royal Caribbean (Celebrity’s parent company) claim to exceed the federal regulations governing black water, voluntarily dumping sewage at least 12 miles from shore.

But that uncertainty by the public cast an important light on the improved state of cruise ship waste management. Increased monitoring of cruise lines during the Clinton administration exposed myriad violations and illegal discharges of oil, garbage, and waste (104 between 1993 and 1998 alone), and no major cruise line was exempt. The aftermath of those citations and fines spawned upgrades and new promises of environmental responsibility. But federal and South Carolina regulations have not followed suit. Standards regulating cruise ships’ waste management systems have not been updated since 1976. And unlike major cruise ship states like Alaska, California, and Maine, the Palmetto State has no additional regulations to federal and international law.

In U.S. waters, cruise ships can legally dump untreated sewage three miles offshore. Closer than three miles, a ship must first pass it through an onboard chemical treatment system. The solid sewage sludge that is left behind is either incinerated onboard, along with plastics and garbage, or discharged at sea. As cruise ships travel the same paths at sea on a weekly basis, the cumulative effect of this added nutrient load on ocean ecosystems, if any, is largely unknown.

Beyond what’s down the toilet, gray water from sinks and laundry contains detergents, grease, and other chemicals. This passes through a screen to catch plastics before entering the ocean. Yet another waste stream, oily bilge water, must be filtered before being released. Finally, like every large ocean-going vessel, cruise ships use ballast water for stabilization. Its release can introduce invasive species, wreaking havoc on native ecosystems.

Due to their passenger load, cruise ships generate nearly a quarter of the solid waste from ocean-going vessels, and except for plastics and hazardous chemicals, that garbage can be legally dumped overboard when at least three miles offshore, as long as it’s first shredded into one-inch diameter scraps. Outside of 12 miles, non-plastic trash can be dumped intact. The cruise lines say they no longer dump trash; Carnival even advertises a “no dump” policy for solid waste, with the exception of ground food scraps.

Outside of water quality considerations, the combustion of bunker fuel and the use of onboard incinerators release carcinogens into the air. That’s notable in Charleston, where our levels of particulate matter (soot) and ground-level ozone consistently earn us an “F” from the American Lung Association. Charleston County recently decided to close our own garbage incinerator over concerns about air quality and the health impact on the surrounding population. Yet with Union Pier at the hub of downtown Charleston, the cruise ships idle and burn garbage amidst the densely populated peninsula.

Opponents like the Conservation League argue that all of these factors warrant the adoption of written regulations by the city and state to enforce by law the practices the cruise ships already voluntarily operate by.

Money Boats

The cruise industry is currently adding over one million passengers each year, and between 2008 and 2011, 38 new ships join the world’s fleet of vacation vessels. Carnival Cruise Lines alone boasts around $2.5 billion in annual profits. By flagging ships abroad, cruise lines can maximize profits by avoiding U.S. income taxes and regulations.

New boats like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas take the cruising experience to new levels of exorbitance. In addition to holding nearly 8,500 people, the Oasis features a theme park, climbing walls, an amphitheater, and a “surf simulator.” Each day, it produces 40,000 gallons of sewage, 19 tons of solid waste, 4,000 gallons of oily bilge water, and 450,000 gallons of gray water.

The sheer volume of waste to be treated and disposed of by cruise ships concerns Ross Klein, the author of four books criticizing the cruise industry, including 2008’s Paradise Lost at Sea: Rethinking Cruise Vacations. He worries that Charleston will come out the economic loser in the cruise ship trade, subsidizing an industry whose monetary impacts may not trickle down as much as the state Port Authority’s economic study suggests.

The $37 million figure in the SPA report also includes multipliers which factor in how port employees and dock laborers will spend their income while in port. The study groups SPA fees with money spent locally on supplies — together adding more than $23 million to the local economy — but neither the study’s authors nor the SPA were able to give specifics about local vendors or expenditures due to competitive proprietary information amongst the cruise companies. Furthermore, the survey interviewed 76 crew members and 264 passengers, an amount that opponents believe is inadequate for a comprehensive study. They also question whether or not the fees collected by cruise ships for organized on-shore excursions like carriage tours were accurately removed from local spending totals. Survey author Crotts says that they were.

Carnival stevedore Gary Santos believes that the true impact of increased cruise calls lies in return visits. “A lot of these people who take these trips on these ships are first time visitors to Charleston,” says Santos. “They get to see a little bit of the city, and when they see it, they all inevitably want to come back.”

The economic study estimated that as many as 80 percent of first-time cruise visitors claim they’ll return to Charleston within five years.

The Holy City certainly has a historic and cultural appeal to attract return visitors, one that Robert Gurley, director of the Preservation Society, worries could be lost if we become a major cruise ship hub. “Once the city loses its ambiance and its sense of special place, it’s impossible to ever get back,” says Gurley, who points out a National Geographic Society rating of destination cities that lists Charleston favorably but ranks Key West and St. Thomas poorly.

According to the National Geographic Society, Key West’s character was “robbed” by the cruise ship industry, although it still “remains a unique, charming, exotic city” despite the “absurdly heavy cruise-ship passenger foot traffic.” NG also says that St. Thomas suffers from “massive over-visitation by massive cruise ships with poor waste management” and “intense development and government that refuses to embrace sustainable tourism.” As for Charleston, which scored a 71, much higher than both Key West (43) and St. Thomas (45), NG noted that tourists should “be careful of commercialized junk and trinkets.”

“The experience with the cruise industry in those cities should be a wake up call for Charleston,” says Gurley.

Mayor Joe Riley believes the current level of cruise traffic is “very digestible and balanced,” stressing that cruise ships won’t ever dominate Charleston due to the limitations of having solely one berth. He adds that the city doesn’t have any “unusual direct expenses” due to cruise visits and that the State Ports Authority pays the city for police supplementation.

Unlike many cruise terminal cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle that charge a $5 to $10 per passenger fee, Charleston requires no such tariff. CCL’s Beach argues that fees, along with city or state imposed regulation guidelines like a requirement to switch to cleaner fuels near our coast, are needed to protect our quality of life. He says that the city is being “taken to the cleaners by the SPA,” while “serving as the platform for them to make an enormous profit.”

Mayor Riley says that while he’d consider looking at a fee down the road, Charleston’s focus now is to remain competitive as a cruise terminal port in the southeast and maintain the level of cruise business currently here. He adds that any additional environmental regulations would be the role of the SPA to impose, not the city.

According to a press release from the SPA, the United Nations recently approved an emissions control area along the Atlantic coast. This area would be from the coast to 230 miles out to sea. The press release states that “the new restrictions, which impact both cargo and cruise ships, will cut the level of sulfur in fuel by 98 percent, fine particulate matter (PM) emissions by 85 percent, and smog-forming nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution by 80 percent.”

In the announcement, Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said, “This is a tremendously important step for clean air in the Charleston metro area.” He added, “Requiring ships to use low sulfur fuel will make a huge dent in port-related emissions.”

A Legacy in Question

In their 40-year history of visiting Charleston, no environmental violations have been reported by cruise ships in our harbor. With their visits increasing, however, opponents like the Coastal Conservation League argue that their record in other waters warrants a closer watch here.

According to Ross Klein’s, in 2006, Celebrity paid a $100,000 fine after the Mercury dumped 500,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into Washington state’s Puget Sound over nine days in September and October 2005. The site also says that the state of California claimed a $200,000 fine from Carnival Cruise Line in 2003 for noncompliance with state ballast water law. The Mercury currently faces pending charges from Juneau, Alaska, for exceeding smoke emission limits in August 2008, according to the Alaskan daily, The Juneau Empire.

Those figures pale in comparison to the $18 million that Carnival Cruise Line paid in 2002 when its crews were found to have discharged oily bilge water into the ocean and falsified their record books, according to CruiseJunkie.

In Alaska, the one state that closely monitors the industry with their own on-board environmental officers, investigations are a constant part of the business. In 2000, the state found 79 of 80 ships with the older Marine Sanitation Devices for treating wastewater to be out of compliance with U.S. Coast Guard standards. Even ships with newer Advanced Wastewater Treatment Systems have proven troublesome. Seventy-two percent of ships permitted to discharge in Alaskan waters at least once potentially violated their limits in 2009. Sixty-six possible violations from last year alone are currently pending in Alaska.

“Most of the violations are in Alaska, because they’re the only place in the world that actively monitors and enforces violations with cruise lines. Most other places aren’t watching,” says cruise critic Klein.

Carnival spokesperson Jennifer De La Cruz stresses the company’s commitment to the environment. She says, “The company’s future depends upon the health of the world’s oceans. As such, the line aggressively seeks both high- and low-tech solutions to manage the environmental impact of our fleet.”

SPA spokesman Byron Miller argues that opponents who cry foul at the environmental impacts of cruise ships are pulling from the past and are “not exactly reflective of the current cruise business.”

“Suggesting what cruise ships can do and what they do are really two different things,” says Miller.

Sea Time

Cruise ships will likely remain a growing sector of our tourist economy and skyline, and apart from a few more fanny packs on Market Street, the average Lowcountry citizen won’t notice a thing. But accidents like the 2006 generator malfunction on a Holland America cruise ship that left Skagway, Alaska, covered in black soot beg for at least a precautionary eye. Other states with longer cruise histories are bulking up their own regulations to further protect themselves.

Maine’s Casco Bay is a no-discharge zone. Washington state bans the discharge of sludge within 12 miles. California requires low-sulfur fuels to be used near the coast and prohibits incinerator use in port.

These requirements go beyond federal and international regulations, which are already the responsibility of a ship’s flag country, not the port city, to enforce. Although inspections and added regulations might encourage cruises to choose Savannah and other ports over Charleston, cruise expansion opponents believe that the fragile nature of our salt marsh ecosystems and our proximity to major wildlife refuges on our coast warrants scrutiny.

With the Union Pier terminal undergoing a major facelift, CCL’s Beach has called for Charleston to set a new Atlantic coast standard for cruise terminals, with innovative programs like a port-sponsored recycling program and cold-ironing, or on-shore power. The State Ports Authority’s Miller says the Union Pier concept plan is already a “tremendous win for the environment,” restoring natural shoreline, removing train traffic from the terminal, and relocating several hundred cargo vessels from the peninsula each year.

Charleston Waterkeeper founder Cyrus Buffum is working with affiliated groups around the country to discover the best path toward instilling regulations that put official clout behind the policies the cruise companies already agree to. He cites Casco Bay’s success in preventing gray water discharges as a model arrangement. Both Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League claim not to oppose cruise ships visiting Charleston, but instead are simply hoping for a written agreement, either as a memorandum of understanding or a regulation backed by law, requiring cruise ships to abide by the practices they’ve already voluntarily adopted.

“We have an opportunity to put out the welcome mat for this industry,” says Buffum, utilizing a euphemism from his Waterkeeper allies in Maine, “but also to mandate that they better wipe their feet before they come in.”