Alaskans weigh in over Carnival Corporation’s deal with federal prosecutors

The Holland America Cruise Ship Westerdam prepares to dock in Juneau July 16, 2012. The ship was fined $250 by the National Park Service for illegally discharging grey water last year in Glacier Bay National Park. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

As Carnival Corporation executives appeared Monday in a federal courtroom in Miami to answer for felony probation violations, Southeast Alaskans penned letters to the court urging the judge to take tough action.

But the Dunleavy administration counseled the judge not to do anything that would threaten Alaska’s tourism sector.

The federal case is in Miami, but 3,400 miles away Alaskans have strong opinions about what should be done about Carnival being caught violating its felony probation by polluting then falsifying records to cover it up.

“We’re all in favor of the tourism industry as long as the ships don’t pollute,” said Theodore “Chip” Thoma of Responsible Cruising in Alaska in Juneau. “But if they pollute and continue on with these practices, then they’re going to have to face the consequences. And those consequences are fines and prohibiting access into Glacier Bay.”

A Holland America cruise ship illegally dumped 26,000 gallons of greywater in Glacier Bay National Park.

Greywater is wastewater from sinks, showers and baths. It’s not poop, but it’s still illegal. And the crew of the Carnival-owned cruise ship Westerdam made matters worse when they didn’t immediately report it to the Coast Guard.

The National Park Service fined the cruise line $250. Then it granted Carnival another 10-year concession for its ships to visit the park.

Critics in Southeast say there has to be greater consequences for pollution.

“Until being dirty is more expensive than being clean. They will continue to be dirty,” said Eric Forrer, a retired fisherman in Juneau.

Both he and Thoma were among at least four Southeast Alaskans that urged the court not to let Carnival off lightly

“In Petersburg, we live out of the water,” retired commercial fisherman Ronn Buschmann said. “I mean, that’s where we get our livelihood. That’s where we get our dinner and it’s important to protect that.”

Carnival and its subsidiaries including Princess Cruise Lines and Holland America collectively posted a $3.2 billion profit in fiscal year 2018.

These Southeast Alaskans petitioned to intervene in the case under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. That would give them special rights to be heard by the court and kept up to date with proceedings.

Federal prosecutors opposed the filing because they argued Alaskans failed to prove any direct harm from Carnival’s criminal actions.

Carnival’s five-year felony probation stemmed from a 2016 conviction for dumping oily waste in the water and then trying to conceal it from regulators.

Federal prosecutors alleged Carnival then broke the rules while on probation by prepping its ships ahead of court-mandated inspections and
continued this practice even after being warned by the judge.

In April, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz threatened to temporarily block Carnival Corporation from docking any of its ships in U.S. ports.

That caught the Dunleavy administration’s attention.

“Obviously such a ban would have significant impact on the state and local communities,” said Assistant Attorney General Cameron Jimmo in Anchorage. “And just to ensure that the judge had weighed the collateral impacts that could occur. Before making such a decision, the state felt it was necessary to chime in.”

That was through a pair of letters to the court from Alaska’s governor and attorney general. Gov. Mike Dunleavy wrote that he understood Carnival “has made mistakes” and that he understood the corporate leadership was prepared to “accept responsibility for these lapses and to propose a way to move forward.”

Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson noted that nearly half of Alaska’s
2.2 million annual visitors come by cruise ship. He warned in his letter that banning Carnival ships “would result in lasting, potentially unrecoverable
damage.”

On Monday afternoon the federal judge accepted a new plea deal with prosecutors: Carnival will pay an additional $20 million fine and submit to even more stringent monitoring.

Carnival CEO Arnold Donald was in court and pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to six probation violations for illegally dumping plastics, wastewater and other prohibited material.

The 13-page settlement also includes corporate restructuring to create a new chief compliance officer.

Carnival Corporation said its agreement with the Department of Justice would in part ensure the strongest and most sustainable environmental compliance program.

“Carnival Corporation remains committed to environmental excellence and protecting the environment in which we live, work and travel,” the statement said. “Our aspiration is to leave the places we touch even better than when we first arrived.”

Monday’s settlement represents the fourth time Carnival admitted to criminal wrongdoing since 1998.

Eric Forrer, the fisherman from Juneau, says he doesn’t understand why the cruise giant keeps trying to get away with it.

“Why aren’t they bending over backwards to operate in a clean way? It just defies logic. I don’t know what the hell their problem is,” Forrer said.

The new agreement sets deadlines in September and October. Failure to abide by the new terms would mean daily fines of $1 million — increasing to $10 million a day.

Cruise industry critics decried the settlement as another slap on the wrist.