Carnival Cruise Line agreed to cut its disposable plastic use in half across its entire fleet by 2021 under a plea agreement entered in Miami federal court Monday.
Carnival also has agreed to pay $20 million in additional fines for violating a pollution case that had already earned it a $40 million fine in 2016 and five years probation. The company had been ordered to clean up pollution violations after it was found trying to dodge expensive fuel disposal costs in the United Kingdom by dumping the waste offshore.
Over the last two years, a court-ordered monitor found the company repeatedly violated the terms, falsified records and even ordered a SWAT-style clean-up team to visit ships before surprise visits, prosecutors said.
Chairman Micky Arison declined to comment after the hearing. How much the deal will cost the company is unclear. Spokesman Roger Frizzell said the company had been considering reducing plastic use, but the plea deal forced it to commit to an amount and a deadline. He could not say how much plastic would be eliminated or how much the change would cost.
The repeated violations angered U.S. Judge Patricia Seitz last month when she threatened to ban Carnival ships from U.S. ports and ordered Arison to appear personally Monday. It was the third violation.
Seitz said Monday she was "profoundly disappointed" in the deal that called for lower-level company executives to plead guilty to the violations. In addition to Arison, CEO Arnold Donald also attended, sitting among four rows of company executives.
"I still struggle with how to impose a personal liability on top management," Seitz said. "Senior management has not had skin in the game."
Carnival was charged in 2016 after Princess Cruises dumped fuel waste off the English coast in 2013 and tried to cover it up by faking records. An investigation found the line also dumped waste in waters from South Florida to Texas. As part of a deal, Carnival agreed to pay the $40 million, a sum prosecutors at the time called the largest settlement in a case where a ship deliberately dumped pollution. The company was also placed on five years probation that included surprise ship audits.
But earlier this year, federal prosecutors charged the line with six violations, that included repeatedly dumping plastic straws, wrappers, plates and other items overboard. Prosecutors said the company hired SWAT-style cleaning teams to make sure violations were addressed before auditors arrived, but then complained in emails that the company wasn't getting it's money worth because monitors continued to find violations.
Carnival also tried to use its influence by having a company official and retired high-ranking U.S. Coast Guard officer call former colleagues to have rules changed.
Monitors also found the company failed to maintain a record of garbage that allowed illegal dumping to go unnoticed. Between April 2018 and last April, equipment that was supposed to monitor pollution was inoperable 400 times, including 115 times on Carnival ships.
Prosecutors also said high-ups in the company tried to shift the blame to lower-level workers.
"They perpetuated a blame game," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Udell.
During the hearing, and in an unusual move, U.S. Judge Ursula Ungaro joined Seitz on the bench. Ungaro will take over the case when Seitz retires. She also expressed frustration with the cruise company.
"You know what's terrifying me? I feel like we're starting at square one," Ungaro said. "This has been going on since 1993 and we're sitting here talking about food waste with plastics? That's incredible."
As part of the deal and a measure of its mea culpa, Donald entered the guilty pleas to each of the six counts.
"Our behavior here today is the first of many steps to win back the trust of the court," Donald said.
Seitz, however, wanted to know what Donald had specifially and personally done to protect the environment.
"If you all did not have the enviroment," she said, "you would have nothing to sell."