Key West civic leaders and city officials were among the tour-takers Friday to get an up-close view of how one cruise ship calling on the Southernmost City manages its sewage, wastewater and other ways it interacts with the environment.
While aspects of Royal Caribbean's Millennium cruise ship's disposal and recycling system impressed some, the field trip did little to settle questions about the most crucial cruise ship question facing Key West, the potential for widening the channel the ships traverse en route to the island. Discussion of that topic, industry and civic representatives agreed, was not the purpose of the field trip.
"We wanted people to see what we actually do, and not go by rumor or hearsay, and get it straight from us," Royal Caribbean spokesman Rich Pruitt said. "We wanted them to hear our words and get down below and see what actions we are taking."
Pruitt's presentation outlined the specific types of waste that are generated on board a ship like the Millennium, ranging from sewage -- the company's standard is to release it after treatment 12 miles from shore rather than the 4 miles industry conventions allow -- to silver nitrate as a byproduct from photographs taken aboard.
"We will recycle everything that is recyclable, and if we can't recycle it, we will find a place to put it," Pruitt said.
The invitation-only event was attended by reporters, members of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, environmental advocacy organizations Last Stand and Reef Relief, City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, city Ports Director Jim Fitton and two Coast Guard representatives.
Launched in the year 2000, the Malta-flagged Millennium is 984 feet long and carries as many as 1,190 passengers and a crew of 900. It's smaller than the newer Oasis class of ships, which exceed 1,100 feet in length and are not expected to be able to come to Key West. That's due to problems relating to crosswinds in the island's channel, considered too narrow to safely navigate the bigger vessels. The channel is 300 feet wide, and advocates would like it dredged to 450 feet.
As the industry moves toward larger ships, Pruitt said, it is likely that smaller vessels will be eventually be working other routes, and that the big ones will be making the Caribbean runs that would include Key West as a port of call.
The Millennium's captain, Alevropoulos Emmanouil, became involved in a discussion of the ship's maneuvering capabilities, noting that modern technology allows the potential for short stops and other maneuvers never dreamed possible before. Propellers can turn 180 degrees within their enclosure areas, meaning the ship itself might not need to make turns for tight spots.
He stopped short of saying that any such benefits exist for the Dream class of ships.
Shirley Freeman, former mayor of Monroe County, who heads the advisory committee that is helping city commissioners choose a new city manager for Key West, noted that channel widening is a separate issue from recycling and waste management considerations. But she saw interesting future possibilities after hearing what the captain had to say.
"I was greatly impressed and intrigued by the way the captain described the maneuverability of these ships forward and backward and sideways and how they can stop on a dime, in one minute, from normal speed," Freeman said. "That's pretty good and tells me you don't need a wider channel. We will let the technology take care of that aspect as it improves."
Freeman said she remembers when cruise ships were blamed for discharging trash in the water years ago, and that she was pleased by the amount of progress made, as evidenced by Friday's tour.
"I remember when everything was dumped overboard -- raw sewage, plastic, just what we used to pick up off the beach here, things that said Royal Caribbean on them. But I am talking about the 1980s. They have gone from putting everything in the water to some pretty nice systems. They're sure way ahead of the city of Key West."
Last Stand's Mark Songer said he was not surprised by the level of environmental concern and good stewardship practices displayed.
"Hearing that international standards are 4 nautical miles outside the land for treated discharge and that they go 12 before they do anything, and the advanced wastewater treatment, I think generally the cruise industry is doing the right thing with their waste disposal," Songer said.
He and other attendees were also impressed by the practice of grinding up leftover food and jettisoning it 12 miles from shore, even though not required to do so.
Fresh water and other waste is dispersed only after the ships reach a speed of 6 knots, leaving no pockets or trails in the water because the spread disperses easily.
Songer also did not expect the visit to shed light on the channel-widening issue.
"There are solutions besides drilling a bigger hole in the ground," he said. "We are in favor of protecting the National Marine Sanctuary. And if we can have the bigger ones call on us without digging a bigger hole in the ground, we are interested in studying it. But if we were looking at a significant increase in the number of passengers, we need to understand best management practices for how to properly entertain that many guests."