Today’s safety hearing by the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, took on a more colorful tone, although sidetracked into environmental and tax issues, when Committee Chairman John J. Rockefeller (D-VW) abruptly interrupted Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association, challenging the industry’s environmental record. He said that outside the three-mile limit, the ships just “pour out sewage.” Senator Rockefeller also questioned why the cruise companies are not paying U.S. corporate income taxes, while using U.S. ports and the services of more than 20 federal agencies.

When Duffy could not directly answer his questions, Senator Rockefeller said: “You need to speak more credibly in front of this committee. I am suspicious of what you do and you defend everything the industry does.”

He pursued the industry’s U.S. corporate tax payments and questioned whether the cruise companies are paying their fair share. He asked Duffy to submit tax returns to him for review and threatened to subpoena tax records if they were not provided.

Senator Rockefeller also noted that the “Coast Guard is singing your praises (referring to the cruise industry).”

Making the industry's case were Bill Johnson, port director of Miami, and Duffy.

Being critical of the industry and challenging its practices were Captain William Doherty, director of maritime relations for the Nexus Consulting Group, and Professor Ross Klein of the School of Social Work, St. Johns College, Memorial University, Canada.

Participating senators included Frank Lautenberger (D-NJ), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Mark Rubio (R-FL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Begich (D-AK), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Boozman (R-AR).

Predictably, senators representing constituencies benefitting from the cruise industry expressed support, while the others took a more neutral to exploratory stand. Also, not surprisingly, the other witnesses had their own axes to grind.

Senator Rockefeller said in his introductory remarks that the Concordia incident was a stark reminder that no form of transportation is safe. He added that “reports from survivors did not inspire confidence that the industry is capable of responding properly to an accident.”

Vice Admiral Salerno noted that although new safety technology and systems have been developed in the 100 years since the Titanic, these are only as good as the humans who operate them and the regulations and their enforcement.

Doherty listed two passenger vessel sinkings that have already taken place in the first two months of 2012, 32 deaths resulting from the Concordia incident, two deaths on other ships; the Allegra adrift, powerless in pirate infested waters; and tons of illegal drugs seized on cruise ships.  He said there are reasons to believe that many more incidents have taken place and that incidents are not reported or under-reported. He also suggested there are conflicts of interest with an industry expected to police itself or via flag states that outsource the task to private companies. As for the Concordia, Doherty did not put the blame only on the captain, but also on senior officers onboard. It was a crewmember who reportedly called the Italian Coast Guard, while the ship’s management continued to tell passengers it was an electrical problem.