A cruise ship captain is on trial in France on charges of violating pollution laws designed to address health concerns over air pollution caused by ferries and huge cruise ships.  According to the Telegraph newspaper, France has charged U.S. captain Evans Hoyt, age  58, for breaking Europe’s air emission laws by authorizing the burning of bunker fuel containing sulphur above the European limit of 1.5%.

Mr. Hoyt was employed as the master of P&O Cruises’ Azura cruise ship, when he oversaw the loading of 900 tons of cheap heavy-sulphur fuel onto the cruise ship when it was in Barcelona, Spain. The next port in Marseilles, France  charged him and cruise giant, Carnival Corporation, and its P&O Cruises brand, of using the low-cost high-sulphur fuel. The “heavy” fuel  produces non-combustible soot particles and oxides that contribute to acid rain and the pollution of the oceans.

The heavy fuel used by one cruise ship causes as much air pollution as one million cars in the same period of time, environmentalists say. High-sulphur fuel is responsible for 60,000 deaths a year and 50 billions euros in health care in Europe alone, according to the France Nature Environnement (FNE) group.

Carnival faces a fine of 100,000 to 200,000 euros (depending on differing news accounts). Relatively speaking, the fine is a pittance considering Carnival’s immense financial resources. However, given the fact that Carnival saved around $200,000 for a week long cruise by purchasing the cheaper fuel and that it owns over 100 cruise ships which each operate virtually 52 weeks a year, the verdict may have significant financial implications for the cruise company.

But Carnival is fighting the fine. It argues that the EU’s 1.5 percent sulfur limit applies only to “passenger ships providing regular services to destinations or from ports of the European Union.” Carnival says that the Azura is a cruise liner, not a ferry with “regular services to (European) destinations,” and is therefore exempt from the 1.5% sulphur limit in the EU law, an argument that it has lost before.  Carnival argues that its ships have to comply only with a higher (3.5%) limit which applies to cargo ships.

The fight against Carnival Corporation has been personalized with charges brought directly against Master Hoyt, who is a popular cruise ship captain who used to work for Norwegian Cruise Line for ten years before he began his employment with P&O Cruises/Carnival. I watched him testify before the House of Representatives on the issue of cruise ship safety following the Costa Concordia disaster. At the hearing, he stressed the important of enforcing cruise industry standards and procedures.

A maritime expert whose opinions I value described him as a “man of integrity and morals.”

Suing a cruise ship captain is an unprecedented step by a port state to deal with the air pollution problem caused by increasingly massive cruise ships.  As readers pointed out on our Facebook page, ship fuel is tested by the environmental officer (or chief engineer) before it is allowed to be pumped into the cruise ship, so it appears that the ship’s master knew that the heavy fuel violated Europe’s sulphur limit. A French newspaper concluded that the captain, who has not appeared in court, “knew perfectly well that the fuel he had filled up with in Barcelona was illegal.” At the same time, a maritime expert commented to me “if the cruise lines doesn’t bunker the ship with emissions compliant fuel, what options does that leave the Master and Chief Engineer?” The ISM Code would also seem to implicate Carnival as the responsible party by it’s failure to adequately supply the ship with “critical components” (i.e., compliant fuel).

Air pollution caused by cruise ships is a particular concern for crowded Mediterranean ports.

Long ago, a German environmental association, Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU), found that passengers could be inhaling “60 times higher concentrations of harmful air pollutants” while on cruise ships, than on land, according to a major U.S. news network.

Recently, Santorini has shown to have very high level of air pollution caused by the cruise and shipping industries, which can legally use heavy fuel oil without exhaust gas cleaning systems in the Mediterranean, as a Telegraph newspaper article explained.

The construction of a huge new cruise ship terminal planned for the river Thames in the U.K. met opposition due to concerns of  dangerous levels of air pollution in the heart of the capital with the attendant potential health consequences for hundreds of thousands of people.

And in the U.S., major cruise line like Princess, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have all been found to be in violation of Alaska’s air emission laws, as well as Alaska’s water discharge standards.

Princess Cruises, of course, is just a year and one-half into its five year probation for its wide spread practice of pollution. I was skeptical that a fine of only $40,000,000 would have any effect on its parent company, giant Carnival Corporation. Carnival-owned cruise ships continue to violate local, state and international pollution laws since the DOJ issued the fine a year and one-half ago. It is no coincidence that a Carnival-owned cruise ship like the Azura is at the center of this latest controversy.

Perhaps there is a symbolic issue at play with a French court hosting the prosecution of an American captain accused of violating European pollution laws. After all, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord a year ago.

In any event, the enforcement of the EU’s sulphur limit could not occur at a more critical time given the United Nations’ recent report which concludes that people must take “rapid, unprecedented changes” in how they use energy to travel and live in order to halt global warning. The Le Monde newspaper comments that there is widespread skepticism that port states will consistently take any meaningful actions to enforce pollution regulations against renegade cruise lines. Perhaps a threat of jail time against a popular U.S. captain of a cruise ship owned by the largest and most popular cruise corporation in the world will teach others that its finally time to treat the air around them with a modicum of respect.

Have a comment? Please leave one below or join the discussion on our Facebook page.

Photo credit: M/S Azurs – Pjotr Mahhonin – CC BY-SA 4.0, commons / wikimedia; middle – Evan Hoyt – C-SPAN; bottom – Norwegian Pearl in Juneau / Photo credit Tim Olson / KTOO Public Radio.