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U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller Takes on the Cruise Ship Industry to Promote Maritime Safety Fleet-wide

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Just a little over a week after New York Senator Charles Schumer proposed a “Cruise Ship Bill of Rights” to protect cruise ship passengers and improve safety industry-wide, another senator has joined the mission to propagate cruise ship safety.

Following the recent string of cruise ship accidents, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller has decided to take on the cruise industry and promote shipboard safety.

Sen. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was appalled with the unsanitary conditions passengers had to suffer aboard the Carnival Triumph after a fire broke out in the ship’s engine room. The fire crippled the vessel, leaving 4,200 people stranded in the Gulf of Mexico for five days last month, with little to eat, non-working toilets and sewage overflowing from deck to deck. Then, as if the cruise ship fire accident wasn’t alarming enough, three other vessels in the Carnival fleet, the Elation, Dream and Legend, experienced debilitating equipment errors.

Sen. Rockefeller had enough of the disregard for maritime safety and believing the industry should do a better job of regulating itself, has pressured Congress to repeal tax provisions that allow cruise companies to register ships registered in foreign ports, a move that protects cruise lines from paying American corporate taxes and being held accountable for maritime accidents that take place in international waters.

“They’re living off the taxpayer, not paying their fair share and not properly monitoring themselves,” explained Sen. Rockefeller in an interview last week. “The tax they pay is 0.6 percent — that’s the total tax that they pay. They make a lot of money, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t reimburse in any way all the agencies of the government — starting with the Coast Guard — that come to their rescue.”

Although the cruise industry has been rocked for the past month and a half with back to back Carnival Cruise Line incidents, this isn’t the first time the Virginia Senator, who is also chairman of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation industry, has attacked the cruise industry for its lack of safety, greed and lax maritime regulations.

After another ship in the Carnival Corp. family, the Costa Cruises vessel Costa Concordia ran aground and capsized off the coast of Giglio, Italy on January 13, 2012, Sen. Rockefeller brought the cruise industry under a microscope in order to examine just what has been going wrong.

The tragic Coast Concordia cruise ship accident resulted in the death of 32 people, which Sen. Rockefeller deemed 32 too many. After the accident, the Senator held an oversight hearing to examine the many deficiencies in the industry’s safety, security and environmental standards, as well as their failure to comply with U.S. and international maritime regulations, in order to determine if cruise ship policies sufficiently protect passengers and the environment from harm.

According to Sen. Rockefeller, the fire that broke out on the Triumph was just the latest in a long string of cruise ship accidents and mishaps that have shown the industry isn’t doing its job to keep passengers safe.

Although cruise ship accidents can – and have – occurred onboard nearly every vessel in the industry, in the past five years alone, the Coast Guard responded to 90 safety incidents involving Carnival ships – three of which took place within the last week.

The Coast Guard spent nearly $780,000 of its own funds responding just to the Triumph incident, but the actual cost pales in comparison to the extent passengers had to suffer amidst horrifying conditions onboard the vessel.

“There was squalid feces and trash and junk and stuff sloshing all over,” said the Senator. “It was disgusting — disgusting.”

Sen. Rockefeller said the Triumph incident serves as a striking example of just how little cruise companies have done to protect the safety of passengers on the high seas.

“You get one of these disasters and it really makes news, and I’m really glad about that because it gives people a sense of what they are getting into,” he added.

Rockefeller also noted a common public misconception that cruise companies actually take care of their vessels and maintain sanitation fleet-wide, performing necessary maintenance as required.

“I don’t think they are,” said Sen. Rockefeller. “They certainly aren’t when they get in trouble.”

When it comes to Carnival, the largest cruise company in the world, Sen. Rockefeller believes there’s a skew in favor of the liner, giving Carnival a form of “monopoly power” and allowing them to “basically own the seas.”

He argued that the only time cruise ships are actually evaluated under U.S. regulations is when they’re sailing within three miles of the U.S. coastline. As each maritime lawyer at our firm well knows, once cruise ships are out in international waters, pretty much anything goes. While there are international maritime regulations, unless an accident occurs which results in an investigation, the breach of international maritime regulation goes unpunished because there is no one on board or out in the open ocean going around inspecting and/or enforcing these regulations and when the vessels are in Port their time there is so limited that only the slightest inspections are conducted if at all.

The public doesn’t ever see the ugly side of the cruise industry, aside from when catastrophic accidents gain widespread media coverage. Cruise lines work hard to hide incidents that occur on their vessels and due to the “we fly a foreign flag” excuse, leave all information and investigations in the hands of foreign governments that rarely disclose any information of incidents aboard the ships.

Sen. Rockefeller wrote a “not-nasty-enough letter” to Carnival Corp. President and CEO Mickey Arison expressing his concerns over the lack of cruise ship safety and asked Arison several questions regarding the maintenance of Carnival-owned ships. If he doesn’t receive a response, the Senator said he would subpoena Arison to make him answer the questions honestly.

Sen. Rockefeller certainly has his work cut out for him, but meanwhile, Carnival continues to state, that maritime safety has always been the main priority of the company.

“As always, the safety of our guests and crew is our foremost priority,” said Carnival in a statement last week. “We are committed to learning from any incident that may occur on one of our vessels to apply lessons learned and prevent future occurrences.”

Carnival is in the midst of executing a comprehensive fleet-wide review of vessel operation systems and training to improve safety regulations across all Carnival ships.

Only time will tell how serious Carnival is about improving its safety measures and crewmember training, but until the day comes when vessels are made safer, all potential cruise passengers are urged to stay safe on the high seas by being informed, reasonably prepared for the fact that once out on the sea they are at the mercy of their vessel and its crew and choosing wisely which lines they choose to support with both their tax and cruise dollars. Contact your Congressman and your State Representative and ask them to require Cruise Lines calling on U.S. ports to be subject to all U.S. laws and contribute their fare share to the U.S. economy without which they would not be in business.

At a time when the current Administration is squeezing everyone especially the rich for more revenue will give Cruise Lines a free ride ?

Photo Credit: U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller –