Marseille mayor in row over giant ‘polluting’ cruise ships


An anti-cruise ship petition has been signed by more than 48,000 people in Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône) sparking a new debate about the effects of the huge ships in the city’s port.

Mayor Benoît Payan launched the petition in July. It calls for an end to pollution from all ships in the port.

On August 2, he tweeted: “The Mediterranean is slowly dying but the giant cruise ship lobbyists want to continue to defile it. In Marseille, whether they like it or not, we will continue to fight.”

On July 21, he published an article on the city’s official website, entitled: “Stop Mediterranean maritime pollution”.

On Twitter, he said: “Marseille is suffocating…we smell, we see, we breathe pollution.” He said that the “levels of pollution in the port cities are not acceptable” and blamed the “cruise ships that pollute, belching smoke on our shores with impunity”.

Mr Payan branded the ships as “floating cities” that “emit as much pollution as a million cars”. He said that the “scandal…is attacking our lungs, our health; it pollutes the sea, destroys biodiversity of this harbour, which, as you know, is the most beautiful in the world”.

He has now called for “strict and ambitious” international standards to be put in place and called on the department prefect to ban the “most polluting boats” from docking in Marseille.

He also called on the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body responsible for maritime transport and pollution management at sea, to take further action to reduce sulfur emissions from cruise ships.

In June, the IMO created a “SECA zone (Sulphur Emission Control Area)” in the Mediterranean; a zone in which sulfur emissions are controlled. But Mr Payan believes this does not go far enough.

He is instead in favor of an ECA zone (Emission Control Area), in which there would be strict controls on all pollutant emissions, especially nitrogen oxides. This measure is set to be introduced in 2025, but this is too late, said Mr Payan.

An ECA zone could make it possible for the city to ban cruise ships from running their engines while in port.

Mr Payan has said that he is willing to contribute €10million (out of the total €30million) required for a current study into the ECA, which is evaluating the impact of the ships’ port presence on human health.

The cruise ship industry has made moves to improve, including plans to build new ships that use cleaner fuel (such as liquid natural gas), or smaller ships overall.

Transport Minister Clément Beaune has maintained a diplomatic stance on the issue, stating: “I don’t want to ban certain activities. We can reconcile development with ecological needs, which will only grow in years to come.”

Cruise ships in Marseille: A recent history

In 2018, air quality monitoring group AtmoSud showed that emissions of nitrogen oxides from maritime sources – of which 20% come from cruise ships – had surpassed pollution from road vehicles in Marseille for the first time.

In 2019, 1.8 million cruise ship passengers visited the Marseille port, across 497 cruise ship dockings, show figures from influential cruise club le Club de la croisière Marseille Provence.

In 2020, My Payan became mayor, and changed the mairie policy on cruise ships. Previously, the mayor had supported their operations, but Mr Payan lowered the subsidies paid to the Club by several tens of thousands of euros.

Laurent Lhardit, the Marseille deputy in charge of tourism, compared the Club to “a lobbying inner circle”.

In 2021, the mairie canceled its membership to the Club due to “disagreement on the tourism strategy”.

The pandemic in 2020 and 2021 did not help the situation.

Although new cruise ships were no longer docking, the ones in-port remained stuck but still needed to run their engines to continue operating, creating more pollution in the port, Atmosud said.

In June 2022, protesters blockaded the port in a bid to stop two giant cruise ships, the Wonder of the Seas (the world’s largest cruise ship), and MSC Orchestra, from docking. They dubbed cruising “a killer leisure activity” that does not benefit the local economy as much as, they said, one might think.

Read more: Video: watch the world’s biggest cruise ship arrive at Marseille

Mr Lhardit said:[Cruise ships bring] poor economic benefits as the stopovers are too short and most cruise passengers stay on board. The Marseille stopover must cease to be considered by the ship owners as a balcony with an unrestricted view of the city.”

The final straw came on July 18 this year, when the city was placed on a level 2 alert for ozone pollution due to a thick, black cloud that had escaped from docked cruise ship the Valiant Lady.

The cruise ship had been using its ‘scrubber’, a filter placed on ship chimneys that reduces sulfur emissions but also involves the discharge of washing water into the coastline. Yet, since January 1, 2022, the filters have been banned from use within three nautical miles of a port.

Images of the cloud spread online, adding fuel to the fire of an already-heated debate.

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