Environmental groups are already sounding the alarm bells about a serious concern in the Arctic – grey water. That’s water used for washing, laundry, cooking and other functions that can’t be recycled and is usually dumped into the sea from cruise ships and other Arctic vessels, harming local ecosystems and potentially threatening regional food security.
Melissa Nacke, World Wildlife Fund Canada’s Arctic shipping and marine conservation specialist, told The Weather Network last week that Canada’s regulations for pollution in the region date back to 1972. While strict at the time, they do not mention grey water, which is regulated below the 60th parallel in Canadian waters, but not above it.
Nacke says the current rules amount to a “zero discharge” regime, but without any practical enforcement. A WWF-Canada report notes the regulations don’t allow for on-board treatment systems.
“What we see is, since it’s zero discharge, it works in theory, but not in operation, because cruise ships aren’t able to hold that much water on board,” Nacke says, adding regulations for Alaskan waters are much more stringent than in Canada.
A study commissioned by World Wildlife Fund Canada said the amount of grey water could double by 2035 if laws aren’t improved.
It’s pretty alarming,” said Nacke. “These concentration areas are overlapping with important species habitat and important cultural areas.”
The number of ships travelling in northern waters is expected to increase as climate change melts sea ice. The study suggests tourism will be the biggest source of grey water dumping by 2035.
“If you think of shower or laundry water, it contains detergent and soaps and shampoos,” said Nacke. “It also has really high levels of nutrients … and can have things like oil and grease. It can have metals, food particles and, because of the laundry, it can also have microplastics.”
Nacke said those materials can contaminate shellfish and cause large algae blooms that create dead zones in the ocean.
The report noted that could have repercussions for food security in northern communities — a conclusion that only adds to Hans Lennie’s concerns. Lennie sits on the Inuvialuit Game Council, which manages wildlife and wildlife habitat in the region. He says grey water is bad news.
“It’s totally detrimental,” said Lennie. “These ships, their grey water is all their cleaning material. That’s pretty toxic stuff.”
“It’s a nurturing grounds. All the marine life. All the invertebrates that the whales feed on. It involves the waterfowl too. It definitely has an impact on the food chain.”
Both the report and locals like Lennie say federal and international regulations are necessary.
“We need something. Right now we have nothing,” he said. “Anything we do is better than nothing.”
Lennie said the Inuvialuit Game Council has been meeting with the federal government.
Officials with Transport Canada said they are reviewing the report.
“Canada regulates shipping within Canadian Arctic waters,” said an emailed statement from the department. “The regulations address many aspects of Arctic shipping, including requirements for vessel construction and operation, training of crew members, the presence of ice navigators on board, fire safety and life-saving.”
But the statement acknowledged there are no provisions related to grey water.
The U.S. government and the state of Alaska have regulations related to grey water from ships.
“Part of that was because cruise ships spend a lot of time in Alaska,” said Ed White, cruise ship program manager with Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “Part of it was the size of the ships, too, which were much larger than the communities they were travelling to. That created a lot public concern.”
White said the major worry was linked to bacteria from food waste or laundry, but officials had also found toxic materials such as dry cleaning chemicals and mercury.
“We don’t see that anymore.”
That’s due to stricter regulations, he said, including inspections on ships and a move to stop using some toxic materials.
Nacke said high standards in Alaska make it more important for grey water discharge to be regulated in Canada’s northern waters.
“Cruise ships that go around Alaska … can literally use Canada as a dumping ground,” she said.
Lennie said he hopes there are some regulations sooner rather than later.
“This is a new travel destination,” he said. “(Tourists) want to see the untouched wilderness, but there’s a cost to it.”
Prepared by Vard Marine Inc., the study used for the findings builds on a previous, similar greywater analysis from 2015. This 2018 report presents a baseline for waste in the region in 2016 and provides projections for the quantities, types and areas of grey water concentration in the Canadian Arctic in 2025 and 2035.
With the report indicating that by 2035 tourism will be the biggest source of grey water dumping, even a small increase in the number of passenger ships can have a big impact on the amount of grey water being dumped. Ships used for mining exports and fishing spend much more time in the Arctic, so even though they have fewer people onboard and lower levels of water use, they are also large contributors.
The report also points to various grey-water treatment options that could be used on ships to eliminate environmentally harmful substances.