Celebrate the start of cruise season by inhaling a nice lungful of exhaust
Celebrate the start of cruise season by inhaling a nice lungful of exhaust. FernandoAH / Getty Images

Jordan Van Voast isn’t sure what initially brought Seattle’s cruise ship crisis to his attention. But as the industry revs back up and tourists arrive for the first departures, it’s been on the Mount Baker acupuncturist's mind a lot lately.

“It’s been going on for years,” he says when reached by phone. Van Voast, a volunteer with the organization Seattle Cruise Control, is talking about the tens of thousands of tons of pollution that cruise ships blast into our air — about a third of Seattle’s total emissions, according to a researcher with the organization. (Update: The Port of Seattle disputes that figure — they point to a recent study that says it's actually 53,625 metric tons of CO2, which would be about 1% of the city's emissions. That's a huge difference! I've got another post in the works about why the difference between the two estimates is so vast.)

While the Port of Seattle has taken some steps to mitigate the toxic emissions, cruise ships still exact a toll. A 2019 study found that Seattle has the highest per-capita death rate from shipping emissions in the country, at 1.8 premature deaths per 100,000 people per year — and that’s on top of the industry’s contribution to climate change, something that’s much harder to calculate.

“It’s only a few weeks ago we had 108 degrees, then last week we had a thousand-year flood in Europe, killing hundreds,” Van Voast says. “Our world’s out of balance.”

Seattle Cruise Control hopes to do something about it, and they’re starting with an action this afternoon as passengers board a ship currently parked by Pier 91.

The problem is evident to anyone who strolls down to the waterfront. Pier 91 recently added shore power capabilities, allowing ships to run off of Seattle’s mostly-renewable power grid. Pier 66, however, won’t have that functionality for several more years, which means that ships docked there will be constantly burning dirty fuel throughout the summer and fall cruise season. Belltown residents have noted a smell and a haze ever since cruise ships returned. According to the Port, the emissions are “mostly” steam. But how much is “mostly”? Fifty-one percent? Ninety-nine? I asked the Port for more information about their tracking of emissions, but they haven’t responded.

And while the Port of Seattle hopes to be carbon-neutral by 2050, cruise ships typically only spend a few hours at port — the rest of the time, they’re out at sea, polluting with abandon. A 2019 study by Johns Hopkins University indicates that air quality on the deck of an average cruise ship is worse than in Beijing. Cruise ships also dump waste into the ocean as they travel, including chemical byproducts from their engines.

And while vacationers might not be aware of the ecological harm, Seattle Cruise Control hopes to get their attention with actions like the one planned for this afternoon: As passengers board the ship berthed at Pier 91, SCC will hold a press conference to voice their concerns. The organization is planning a similar event for July 23rd near Pier 66.

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Generally speaking, Van Voast says, Cruise Control wants “to rethink the whole concept of tourism. We don’t want to take away jobs at the port. Maybe we can transition those jobs to something sustainable, building wind turbines and solar panels, rehabilitating portions of the waterfront.”

The organization, which Van Voast says boasts between six and eight core organizers, formed a few years ago to oppose the building of a new cruise ship terminal at Terminal 46. While work on that project halted in 2020, climate activists are concerned that the resumption of cruises seems to have spurred renewed interest in the project.

“A good starting place would be to take T46 off the table once and for all,” Van Voast says. “I don’t know that our group has a specific platform, but we’re asking that we reimagine tourism. That’s one of our core platforms. And it’s not just asking the Port, it’s asking the media, it’s asking everybody who’s awake and trying to think about their own future.”