Is cruise solution as easy as plugging in?

Oceania's Regatta cruise ship stopped in Charleston on Sept. 10 on its way from San Francisco to New York, having passed through the Panama Canal.

Bringing together the two sides in the fuming battle over cruise ships in Charleston could be as simple as running an extension cord.

So while that may sound simple enough, there are two problems:

One is that the cord would be connected to a $6 million shore power outlet that zings enough juice to light up several thousand homes. That's what it takes to power a cruise ship if it switches off its engines in port to keep from burning polluting fuel.

If you're talking about an older ship like Carnival's Fantasy, which is home-ported here, add another $1 million to $2 million. The Fantasy never has been fitted to use shore power, despite a $200-million-plus upgrade in 2008, when Carnival was committing to providing ships with shore power facilities in other ports; two years later, the aging ship was moved to the home port in Charleston.

The second problem is that, at this point, neither side will budge — even though both have suggested, privately or in actions, that shore power could be an acceptable compromise. Residents who live near the State Ports Authority's existing and planned cruise ship terminals also want limits on ship visits and passenger totals because of noise and crowds.

“We said that if they provided shore power and established a cap of 104 ships per year and a ship size limit of 3,500 passengers, both enforceable by City Council, (the Coastal Conservation League) would withdraw our objections to the terminal,” said Dana Beach of the league, in an email.

SPA officials are concerned that if they give in on shore power, the groups seeking limits on cruises will press harder for more concessions.

The SPA has agreed on a voluntary basis to limit the size of and number of ships to win city of Charleston and state approvals. But a non-negotiable cap on either is considered a non-starter. The SPA wants to spend $35 million to redevelop a warehouse at the north end of Union Pier Terminal to replace the current structure at the south end. The new building would allow for larger cruise ships and more passengers.

So both sides are entangled in lengthy, expensive lawsuits, and a recent federal court ruling didn't help matters. The court ruled that a federal permit for the new terminal be reconsidered — a victory for the groups fighting the project.

But the thing that started this whole mess and continues to drive it is toxic black exhaust from the cruise ship smokestacks at dock as the engines provide the ships electric power.

“Shore power is huge. Honestly, I don't think any of these lawsuits would have happened if they had agreed to shore power three years ago,” said Carrie Agnew, executive director of Charleston Community Cruise Control, which wants limits placed on the industry. “I can't tell you that everything would go away (if the SPA agreed to it). I think it would go a long way. They have said no for three years.”

The SPA won't say whether its agreement with Carnival includes not having to hook up to shore power.

“The Ports Authority does not comment on contractual matters with customers. We believe Carnival to be operating lawfully in Charleston under all ... emissions standards, adopted by the U.S. EPA for air quality,” said Allison Skipper, public relations manager, in a Sept. 13 email. She declined to comment on whether the SPA would agree to installing shore power if the lawsuits were dropped.

The recent lawsuit is the first of three filed by a consortium of environmentalists and neighborhood groups concerning pollution, crowds, noise or other environmental problems they allege haven't been dealt with in permitting for the new terminal.

Coincidentally or not, as that first case was heard the Coastal Conservation League released a study on the smokestack fumes that indicated that hooking a cruise ship to shore power would reduce its toxic emissions by 19 percent to 90 percent, depending on which of the six toxins you are talking about, whether or not the ship burns a cleaner fuel that will be required by law.

“The port has said repeatedly that there is no economic or environmental justification for shore power,” said Katie Zimmerman of the league. “Now we have an expert's researched report that shows it is worth consideration, and that our decision-makers should not simply dismiss this important solution for pollution mitigation and the reduction of a serious health hazard.”

The SPA declined to comment on the study.

At the crux of all this is the Carnival Fantasy, because its embarkments and landings make up most of the cruise ship business at the port. The ship is 23 years old, near the age when Carnival historically has stopped operating its ships and sold them to other lines. The industry is turning to larger ships.

Opponents have suspected the agreement with the SPA is tenuous. They believe the Fantasy could be pulled from the port any time even if the new $35 million terminal gets built. And whether the company continues to do business at what is generally regarded as a smaller port is dependent on customers and convenience.

In 2011, Carnival abruptly pulled its ship Elation from Mobile, Ala., where it was the only ship home-ported. The ship was similar in size to the Fantasy. The company cited failure to draw enough business as the reason for the move.

In a recent federal settlement, Carnival agreed to a $180 million rehab of 32 ships, installing scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide and filters to trap soot. The ships have not been named yet.

The agreement came just weeks after Carnival announced a plan to move its ships home-ported in Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., to Florida this fall, partly because of higher fuel costs associated with new EPA standards. SPA officials have said Carnival's shifting from the two northern ports could mean more business for Charleston.

For the SPA, the cruise business brings in about six percent of its revenue now, and the $35 million terminal is a big investment in its business future.

Tyrone Richardson contributed to this report. Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.