Based on the experience of professional mariners serving our state's waters, extensive and significant regulations exist for the cruise ships calling Charleston, ensuring that our environment is protected.

For 150 years, the Charleston Branch Pilots Association has navigated ships of all types through our harbor -- everything from naval ships and oil tankers to yachts and container ships.

Pilots meet ships visiting our harbor 10 to 15 miles out to sea. They guide ships safely to and from their docks through our harbor, more than 4,000 times a year. We're proud of our hands-on role in environmental protection, preventing incidents that could damage our beautiful harbor, the public or commerce.

From this perspective, as we listen to the debate on cruise ships and their environmental impacts, we note a vast difference between what some are saying ashore and what is actually happening aboard these vessels.

Not unlike cargo shipping in the port, cruise ships serve an industry vital to our state: in this case, tourism. Cruise ships are an important partner supporting our economy. From our view, this community is fortunate to have such professional and conscientious partners in one of our state's most important businesses.

Cruise ships are the most technologically advanced sailing today. They have to be, because they are the most regulated ships anywhere.

Every cruise ship coming to the United States is subject to both international regulation and United States law. Where the rules are not equal, the higher standard prevails. Their exceptional safety systems are exceeded only by their tenacious commitment to excellence. This makes perfect sense to us, because unlike any other type of shipping, their "cargo" -- the passenger -- reads newspapers and decides what company deserves their business.

A cruise ship's reputation is its livelihood. Not surprisingly, we find cruise ship captains, officers, and crews to be exceptionally conscientious, accountable and professional, accepting no compromises.

We see examples to validate their commitment to responsibility every voyage. Cruise ships embarking from Charleston apply a "no discharge" policy. Wastes are handled, treated, or disposed of to the highest standards, whether to U.S. or international standard, or their own policies, which in the case of sewage are more stringent than any law. They hold their discharges until they're twelve miles to sea, well beyond where the law would allow them to discharge even untreated sewage, and once out past 12 miles, they still treat it to the same level as would have been required in port.

In fact, their sewage handling, treatment and discharge practices not only exceed all legal requirements, but they are safer to our harbor than the handling of treated sewage from our homes that actually is discharged into our harbor.

It has been said that cruise ships are largely unregulated, and that their regulations have not been updated in decades. In just the last 25 years, cruise ships have met several major regulatory changes, including mandates for equipment to remove oil from bilge water; International Oil Spill Prevention certification; substantial improvements in fire safety systems; and standards for crew training, certification, and fatigue.

The International Safety Management System now makes ship owners more directly accountable for safety on their ships. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 established further environmental standards. The Maritime Transportation Security Acts of the last decade completely overhauled practices for terrorism prevention.

Most recently, these ships are now subject to the Environmental Protection Agency's new regulations under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, which covers more than two dozen discharges.

Cruises are hardly an unregulated industry, with increased safety, security, and environmental regulations enacted often.

As the local debate continues, there are increasing calls for limitations and commitments. Perhaps the first commitment should be to the facts. From our vantage point onboard the ships, there are stringent regulations in place and the cruise industry is taking vigorous steps to ensure it operates responsibly.

Here in Charleston, we are fortunate to have our own International Waterkeeper Alliance chapter, the Charleston Waterkeeper.

We have offered to fund our Waterkeeper to sample and study the health of our harbor, gathering facts on which to base any needed water quality safeguards. We welcome our environmental partners, both advocates and businesses like ours who focus on environmental protection, to join us in promoting this fact-finding study.

The future of our port is the future of our community. That has always been Charleston's legacy. Our partners in commerce and quality of life have always included the maritime community.

Our planning deserves our attention to the facts, as do our partners in that future.