Cruise ships and large commercial ships will be banned from dumping any kind of sewage — even highly filtered wastewater — along California’s coast out to three miles from shore, under new rules from the Obama administration.
The rules, which are scheduled to be announced Wednesday at a news conference in San Francisco, give California among the strictest laws in the nation limiting pollution from large ships.
“This is going to cover the entire California coastline,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. “Oceangoing vessels should not consider our coastline a place for dumping sewage.”
In 2005, Simitian wrote a bill that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed banning sewage discharges in state waters from cruise ships and commercial ships larger than 300 gross tons.
That bill — the first of its kind in the nation — made it illegal for such ships to discharge oily bilge water, “gray water” from sinks and showers and other hazardous waste. But a key provision that also banned sewage releases could not legally take effect until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave permission under the federal Clean Water Act.
Although California asked the EPA for permission in 2006, the Bush administration did not act on the request.
Officials at EPA regional headquarters in San Francisco declined to comment Monday, saying they would wait until the formal announcement later this week.
But people familiar with the new rule said it will add legal clarity to the state law, so that if a ship did discharge sewage close to shore, its owner could not claim it was immune from penalties because the EPA had yet to act.
“This is a giant step in the protection of our coastal waters,” said Teri Shore, program director at Turtle Island Restoration Network in San Francisco.
Industry officials said they already are complying with the state law.
“EPA has discussed it in general with us, and we said that if it follows the provisions in the Simitian statutes I don’t think it should be a problem for us,” said John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association in San Francisco.
The association opposed Simitian’s bill but withdrew opposition when a provision was inserted allowing older ships without the capacity to hold treated sewage to discharge it in state waters.
Cruise lines said they also are following the state law.
“We don’t discharge anything within California’s three-mile limit,” said Karen Candy, a spokeswoman for Princess Cruise Lines.
Environmentalists said the clarity from EPA is important, however.
“The cruise lines have pretty much said all along they won’t dump in state waters, but there’s no enforcement,” Shore said. “It’s all voluntary. This gives it the force of law.”
With fears of international travel high after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, cruise ship visits to U.S. ports — particularly California stops such as Monterey, San Francisco and San Diego — grew steadily. By 2006, there were 81 cruise ship visits to San Francisco Bay, carrying 223,000 passengers.
Although the struggling economy has reduced that trend somewhat — to 62 visits and 179,000 passengers last year — the level remains more than double the pre-Sept. 11 numbers.
“Cruise ships have 3,000 or 4,000 people on them. They are little cities,” said Arthur Feinstein, vice chairman of the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club. “You can imagine the amount of sewage they put in the water. And they are only getting bigger. So I think this makes a huge difference.”
In 2003, the city of Monterey banned all Crystal Cruise ships after the Crystal Harmony dumped 36,000 gallons of gray water and sewage in Monterey Bay. Simitian said that was the impetus behind his bill.
“I remember picking up the paper and thinking, ‘you gotta be kidding me,’ ” he said. “Their answer was ‘we didn’t break any rules.’ I remember thinking, if this isn’t against the law it ought to be.”