Ship sewage claimed non-issue for island

Who's in charge?

Coast Guard attorneys were trying to determine this week which agency has jurisdiction over the Strait of Juan De Fuca, where a cruise ship discharged 40 tons of raw sewage into the water sometime on May 3.

A team of investigators from the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Coast Guard will board the cruise ship Norwegian Sun tomorrow about 9 a.m. at Pier 66 in Seattle to begin looking into the incident, which occurred near the north end of Admirality Inlet, just offshore from Whidbey Island.

In the meantime, attorneys for the Coast Guard will try to determine if any federal laws were violated.

At the time of the discharge, the 3,200-passenger Norwegian Sun was cruising into Seattle from Victoria. According to the Coast Guard, the ship was 4.5 miles off the west shore of Whidbey Island at Partridge Point, near Coupeville. The nearest point of land was 4 miles off McCurdy Point near Port Townsend.

According to the Coast Guard, the incident occurred when an engineer aboard the Norwegian Sun opened valves from what he thought was gray water from the ship's sinks and showers. Instead, the ship discharged black water, or raw sewage.

Jurisdiction in the case may come down to how far out to sea the cruise ship was when it dumped the sewage. The state Department of Ecology considers all of the inland waters of Washington to be under the state's jurisdiction. According to department spokesman Larry Altos, that agency will work on the case.

"We will be looking at this incident in terms of our own water quality laws," he said Monday. "If it was a sewage discharge, the state has jurisdiction over anywhere that is considered Washington waters, which Puget Sound is, regardless of distance from shore."

On Sunday, a marine specialist and sewage treatment expert will represent DOE in the on board investigation of the Norwegian Sun.

In Island County, officials don't care which agency handles the investigation -- they just want to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said this week that people living around Puget Sound work hard to keep the water clean. To him, the thought of that much raw sewage being dumped near Whidbey shores is disturbing.

"I understand accidents can happen," he said, giving the cruise ship the benefit of the doubt. "I would like to see more precautions and foolproof procedures put in place to prevent this from happening again."

When it comes to enforcing environmental regulations at sea, the Coast Guard administers federal environmental protection laws U.S waters.

"We are not sure we have jurisdiction, but our legal folks are looking into it," said Scott Casad, a spokesman for the Coast Guard.

But investigators from both Ecology and the Coast Guard will be boarding the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship on Sunday to look at ship's records, put together of timeline for the event and interview the personnel involved.

How much damage the spill did has yet to be assessed. Ecology's Altos was somewhat upbeat on the subject and said the sewage would not reach Whidbey Island Shores.

"We have every reason to believe there was rapid dispersement of the pollution from the strong tidal action in the area," he said. "That is not say we are not taking this seriously. We will be following up with a thorough investigation."

Altos said it was his belief that cruise lines have voluntarily chosen not to dump sewage in Puget Sound.

But locally, not everyone bought into that. Don Mehan, director of Island County's Washington State University Extension Service office, said he was disappointed to hear of the incident.

"To me it's disheartening to see that kind of thing happening, when we are doing everything to protect the Sound," he said.

He said the impact of 40 tons of untreated sewage on marine life is not known. But, thinking of Puget Sound as a living organism, 40 tons is "a big dose for for it to handle."

Mehan said cruise lines benefit from beauty of Puget Sound's environment. They should be better about taking care of it.

"They need to be more diligent about protecting the resource," he said.

Alaska which has had cruise ships traveling through its waters longer than Washington, recently tightened its state laws concerning discharge practices.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations prohibit untreated gray and black water from being discharged within three miles of a U.S. shoreline. Federal law allows ships to dump sewage in the open sea.

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