OPINION: Big cruise ships could be terrorist targets

August 15th, 2016 12:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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LAST week, a colossus of the cruise ship world, the Caribbean Princess, visited Cobh, which is one of its regular pit stops. Having paid its respects, the 290-metre (950-foot) liner with 3,306 passengers and 1,158 crewmembers, set sail for Dublin. And then, 25 miles southeast of the capital, it broke down!

Yes, kaput!  Its engines failed, and along the Wicklow coast it drifted for nine hours.  

What a sight that was! The 17-deck tall, ‘grand class’ behemoth of the seas, with a population aboard that was ten times the village of Timoleague, aimlessly bobbing about, carried along by currents of air and water, with no clear purpose or goal.

If it had not been for the goodness of the sea-gods, Poseidon, Neptune and our very own Lir, an easterly wind might have been blowing at the time. But the gods thought otherwise. There was no easterly wind, thus ensuring the liner did not run aground off the Dublin or Wicklow coast.

A tragedy of Titanic proportions was avoided but not before bizarre rumours circulated of Muslim terrorists having hijacked the vessel. 

After all, the possibility of a hijacking was hardly new.  

The Achille Lauro remains fresh in the memory of maritime security geeks, as evidenced by the UK vice-admiral who told the Daily Mail that the next target for ISIS could be a cruise ship.

Indeed a former director of security for Princess Cruises, the US company that runs the vessel, wrote a book, entitled Cruising for Trouble, which specifically addresses the potential of a cruise ship as a target for Muslim terrorists!


Ship pollution

Thankfully, nothing like that threatened the Caribbean Princess. All its problems were due to a ‘technical glitch.’ So they said.  

No one on board had been in any danger, everyone was ‘safe and secure’ and the ship did not lose total power. Air conditioning, lighting and hotel services all continued to function while the emergency was taking place.

But, and here’s a good one: threats other then terrorism are surfacing.  Public concern at ‘ship pollution’ is growing. Residents’ groups in Greenwich, near London, are mounting a high court challenge that is based on the concept of ‘ship pollution’ and on the fact that London has already exceeded its annual pollution limit. The outcome could have some repercussions for the liner trade in Cobh, Bantry and Dublin.

The point at issue in Greenwich is council approval for the construction of a new wharf that will handle 55 cruise liners annually. Locals oppose the wharf and the increased liner traffic.

According to Travel Industry Today, the liners will burn about 700 litres of diesel an hour for six months of the year. Environmental consultants estimate that to be the equivalent of 688 trucks permanently running their engines at Enderby Wharf in Greenwich.  

Larger ships would emit as many diesel fumes as 2,000 trucks a day. Greenwich residents complain that, as ships get bigger, the pollution gets worse. 


Monster liners

An environmental consultant to New Scientist, Fred Pearce, revealed some years ago this mind-boggling statistic: Sixteen of the world’s largest ships can produce as much sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars.

The environmental organisation Friends of the Earth argues that cruise ships are responsible for significant air pollution because of the dirty fuel that they burn even while at dock. The dirty-diesel engines provide electrical power to passengers and crew that, according to environmentalists, can lead to serious problems such as serious cardiovascular problems, premature death, acid rain, habitat destruction and climate change.

‘Every day that an average cruise ship is at sea it emits more SOx (air pollution from maritime transport) than 13 million cars and more soot than one million cars,’ it says.

Ironically, as opposition to the new generation of ‘mega’ liners is strengthening in Britain, support for them is intensifying in this country. The Port of Cork, which last year catered for 57 cruise liners in Cobh, expects to increase that number to 75 visits a year by 2019.

And, within the next two to four years, the port company hopes to welcome gigantic liners that are similar to the 1,188ft-long Harmony of the Seas, which can carry 6,780 passengers and 2,100 crewmembers.


Floating towns

Yet, and very strangely, neither environmentalists working for Cork County Council nor the Port of Cork have advised the public on the pollution impact on Cobh of these vessels, despite the fact that they are effectively floating towns powered by the largest diesel engines in the world.

So, perhaps now is time for the Port of Cork to show good reason for promoting an industry that has huge pollution implications.

Certainly the State-owned company last year saw its revenue increase by 12.9% to €29.8m (largely from charges to port users, liners and property rental increases). Cobh overtook Dublin in terms of cruise business and, for the first time ever, the number of passengers from cruise ships went above the 100,000 mark.

The company also said that estimated tourist input to the local economy from cruise ships was about €4m a year. Unfortunately the Port of Cork gave no breakdown as to where most of the money was generated – Cobh, Cork, Blarney or Killarney. 

In the meantime, Cobh is belatedly realising that it could become a pollution hot spot, as could Bantry should the liner trade continue to develop in that part of West Cork.

Of course there are procedures to ameliorate ship pollution. 

Friends of the Earth claim that new technologies could reduce air emissions. ‘Cold ironing technology allows cruise ships at dock to plug in to shoreside power and receive electricity to operate their refrigeration, cooling heating, and lighting systems without having to burn dirty fuel in ship engines.’


Not equipped

But, for cost reasons few cruise lines are prepared to adopt the procedures. As well, it seems that planning permission does not require a cleaner operation, nor do health feasibility studies have to be undertaken.

The Royal Caribbean shipping line responded to the ‘cold ironing technology’ proposal with the argument that only six of the 490 ports that their cruise ships visit worldwide have shore power.

And the developers of the new wharf at Greenwich argue that supplying electrical power was not commercially viable because many cruise liners are not equipped to use it.

But whatever the arguments for or against, it is a fact that cruise ships at dock run dirty diesel engines to provide electrical power to passengers and crew. Question is, should Cork County Council have demanded that the Port of Cork provide an onshore power supply for visiting liners so that the vessels could turn off their engines while berthed?

And is it too late to make that demand?

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