Coronavirus Cruise Ship Is Still Anchored on the Bay. Handling Its Sewage Is a Chore

The Grand Princess, pictured in early March as it cruised near the Farallon Island and awaited permission to dock in the Bay Area. (Josh Edelson/AFP-Getty Images)

Over the past two weeks, crews have pumped more than 1 million gallons of raw sewage from the Grand Princess cruise ship and dumped it in East Bay sanitary sewers for treatment.

Workers for the company Marine Express are regularly removing waste from the ship, which is still anchored in San Francisco Bay after becoming the scene of one of the world's most notorious coronavirus outbreaks.

The effluent is hauled ashore on barges, hit with a dose of disinfectant, then deposited into a huge East Bay Municipal Utility District sewer main called the Alameda Interceptor. From there, the material joins the underground river of everything else that's been flushed down local toilets and flows to the agency's wastewater treatment plant at the foot of the Bay Bridge.

"EBMUD has never received a request quite like this," EBMUD representative Andrea Pook said in an email.

She says that so far the agency has treated 1.3 million gallons of Grand Princess sewage at a cost of close to $13,000.

The process began March 10, a day after the Grand Princess docked at the Port of Oakland. Agency officials "worked late into the night" to figure out how to deal with the sewage, Pook says.

Sponsored

EBMUD issued a special discharge permit to Princess Cruises and on March 11 crews began bringing the sewage from ship to shore.

The work continued after the ship left port to anchor in the bay on March 16. It's now positioned near San Francisco's Hunters Point.

There are currently 646 crew members quarantined on the ship, Princess Cruises says.

"Grand Princess must run barges on a regular basis while the ship is at anchor in order to keep up with the production of the wastewater," said cruise company spokeswoman Alivia Owyoung Ender in an email.

Plans for the ship after the quarantine is over are still being determined.

Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental group that has several ongoing legal cases dealing with city sewage systems, expressed concerns about the plans put in place for the work and the infrastructure at the center of the job.

"This process to deal with the Grand Princess sewage and graywater when they're at capacity onboard sounds right, but it sounds like what they had to do here was extremely complicated and unexpected," Choksi-Chugh said.

"We're counting on that sewer system in Alameda not having any pipes that leak as the flow made its way to the EBMUD treatment plant," she said.

Coronavirus Coverage

Pook, the EBMUD representative, says the agency's treatment process destroys the coronavirus in the sewage.

"However, our concern with this wastewater was the potential exposure to workers prior to treatment," Pook said.

That concern prompted EBMUD to require the Grand Princess to "pre-treat" the sewage. And the agency worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alameda County Public Health Department to develop procedures for handling the wastewater.

Pook says the CDC recommended that the effluent be dumped directly into the agency's sewers, but EBMUD decided to add a high dose of the disinfectant sodium hypochlorite before the material was discharged into the sewer system.

After reaching EBMUD's treatment plant, which is adjacent to the MacArthur Maze in Oakland, the sewage joins material flowing in from Berkeley, Oakland and other communities. The facility's process aims to remove pathogens like viruses and bacteria from wastewater, which is then disinfected, dechlorinated and released into the bay.

Baykeeper's Choksi-Chugh said state and local officials may not have expected such a large amount of sewage to be discharged from the ship.

"Special emergency permits had to be issued at the last minute, which isn't ideal for making sure all the logistics are considered and handled properly," Choksi-Chugh said.

"Wastewater management was something that should have been taken into consideration as part of the deliberation to accept the ship at the Port of Oakland in the first place," she said.

Federal health officials say the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 is low. The CDC says while it's possible, there is no evidence yet that such transmission has happened.