A second port on Canada’s West Coast is proposing a ban on cruise ships dumping contaminated and acidic wastewater while docked to protect the marine environment.

The Port of Prince Rupert on B.C.’s north coast is taking public feedback until Feb. 5 on changes slated for 2023, including forbidding the open-loop scrubber systems that cruise ships use to clean their exhaust when burning dirty fuel.

Open-loop scrubber systems use water to “wash” pollutants in dirty heavy fuel oil, such as sulphur dioxide, carcinogens and heavy metals, from the fumes. They then flush the untreated mix directly into the ocean rather than the atmosphere.

This wastewater worsens ocean acidification, which makes it harder for marine organisms such as oysters, clams, prawns and crabs to form shells. Tiny but important floating marine snails, a critical food source for many animals including salmon, sharks and whales, are also affected.

Heavy metals from scrubber wastewater can accumulate in the food web, harming marine life and causing reproductive disorders in endangered marine mammals, such as southern resident killer whales.

It’s great news that the Prince Rupert port — following the example set by the Port of Vancouver last spring — is stepping up to help protect B.C.’s ocean and the coastal communities that depend on it, said Anna Barford, Stand.earth’s shipping campaigner, especially given the federal government’s failure to prevent cruise ships from dumping billions of litres of polluted, acidic wastewater along the coast each year.

“It’s time for the federal government to stop depending on local leadership to do the heavy lifting with limited bans and step in to protect the entire coast,” she said.

Transport Canada needs to follow California’s example, which has banned ships’ use of any exhaust gas cleaning systems in its waters, she added.

The fix is simple for cruise ships facing bans on polluting scrubber systems, Barford said: they just need to use cleaner but more expensive fuels.

Ottawa has to stop letting local port authorities do the heavy lifting in preventing cruise ships from dumping billions of litres of corrosive wastewater along the B.C. coast, environmentalists say.

Scrubbers are a loophole that gives the cruise industry a way to comply with International Maritime Organization rules on harmful sulphur emissions without switching fuels, she said.

“Transport Canada’s policy continues to allow scrubbers and the use of dirty, bottom-of-the-barrel fossil fuels, which lines the pockets of cruise ship executives and ship owners at the expense of coastal communities that deal with the pollution,” Barford said.

Last April, the federal government launched new voluntary discharge and treatment guidelines for cruise ships on sewage and grey water (kitchen and laundry wastewater, food waste, cleaning products, grease and oil, and other pollutants). These guidelines are slated to become mandatory this year.

Transport Canada originally set out to crack down on scrubber discharge, an access-to-information request obtained by Canada’s National Observer showed. But when new wastewater rules were released, scrubber wastewater, which accounts for upwards of 90 per cent of the water pollution from cruise ships, was exempt.

The federal Ministry of Transport and Transport Canada did not say if or when the federal government is developing measures to restrict or ban the discharge of polluted scrubber wastewater when asked by Canada’s National Observer.

The Port of Prince Rupert’s new rules on scrubber wastewater will go into effect after considering public comment and when the port’s 2023 information guide is finalized, Katherine Voigt, the port authority’s communications manager, said in an email.

“In an effort to continuously improve the sustainability practices of port activities and to minimize any environmental impacts to air and water at the Port of Prince Rupert, and in keeping with emerging industry best practices, the [port authority] has identified the elimination of open-loop scrubber use within its jurisdiction as a reasonable course of action,” Voigt said.

Last March, Vancouver was the first port in B.C. to limit the discharge of contaminated scrubber water, citing its potential toxic impacts on marine life and the risk of pollutants accumulating in the food web and endangering marine ecosystems.

In 2020, the Port of Seattle also banned cruise ships from dumping scrubber water while docked. The port authority went a step further in securing a ban on any scrubber water discharge within all of the Puget Sound until research demonstrates it doesn’t threaten water quality or human health in the region, which also supports a large shellfish industry.

Communities across B.C. also called on the province to advocate for Ottawa to ban the dumping of scrubber wastewater along the coast, citing more stringent measures at play in California and Washington state at their last Union of BC Municipalities conference, Barford said.

“So, we’re seeing those that are most connected to the coast and ocean raising the alarm around shipping pollution.”

— With files from Natasha Bulowski

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer