Judge Threatens to Bar Carnival Cruise Ships from U.S. Ports

The Westerdam (file image courtesy Holland America)

Published Apr 12, 2019 12:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

Carnival Corporation's vessels could be banned from U.S. ports over alleged violations of the cruise line's oil pollution probation agreement, a federal judge warned Wednesday. The impact would be immediately felt in South Florida, Carnival's home base and the center of the world's cruise industry. 

All of Carnival's cruise ships are built and flagged outside of the United States, and their visits to the U.S. are subject to port state control.  On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz said that she may ban them from American ports after prosecutors presented evidence of alleged violations of the company's five-year probation agreement.

The probation was one of the terms of a 2016 settlement related to Princess Cruises' practice of discharging untreated oily bilge water. Princess - a Carnival brand - also pled guilty to seven felony MARPOL charges and paid a $40 million fine, the largest ever criminal penalty for deliberate pollution from a vessel.

Under the terms of the probationary agreement, a third-party auditor would periodically inspect ships belonging to Carnival's brands. Prosecutors now allege that Carnival staff have been in the practice of "prepping" the ships prior to inspectors' arrival in order to "prevent audit findings." Among other evidence, prosecutors presented internal emails from two Carnival brands regarding this practice. 

In addition, auditors made several significant findings. An engineer aboard the Holland America vessel Westerdam allegedly falsified records on equipment testing and cleaning, and the same vessel allegedly discharged thousands of gallons of gray water into Glacier Bay National Park, a protected area where this practice is prohibited by concession agreements. Separately, another monitoring report alleged that the crew of Carnival Elation discharged plastic trash over the side during an audit in December, a violation of MARPOL. 

In a statement, Carnival Corp said that "we intend to fully address the issues raised at today's court conference." The firm also suggested that there were some "mischaracterizations" made during Wednesday's hearings. 

Judge Seitz indicated that she thought Carnival was not treating its probationary status with the appropriate degree of seriousness. "The people at the top are treating this as a gnat," she said at the hearing. "If I could, I would give all the members of the executive committee a visit to the detention center for a couple of days. It's amazing how that helps people come to focus on reality."