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Cruise season ends as new wastewater permit begins

CSAW: state slow to fix current permit

Posted: September 10, 2012 - 10:15pm  |  Updated: September 11, 2012 - 12:00am

Juneau’s final cruise ship visit is only weeks away — Holland America’s Oosterdam is scheduled to depart Juneau at 8 p.m. on Sept. 26. In the wake of what was expected to be a season that would see nearly 1 million cruise passengers visiting Alaska’s ports of call, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation will begin to finalize and seek public input on permitting a less glamorous aspect of the cruise industry — wastewater discharge.

With hundreds of cruises carrying an estimated one million passengers, the issue of how to process and dispose of black and grey water waste has drawn a lot of attention over the years, legislative action and a pending lawsuit. While critics say discharges violate legal standards, a cruise industry spokesman said the best technologies available were built into the ships.

The non-profit environmental group Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters introduced a successful public initiative that set new head taxes for cruise passengers and new requirements for the wastewater treatment systems cruise ships carry in 2006.

DEC issued a wastewater discharge permit in 2008 that the Alaska State Legislature deemed “too stringent” a year later, Rob Edwardson, cruise ship program manager for ADEC said in a recent telephone interview.

The Legislature altered the statute to authorize the Department of Conservation to issue a less stringent permit covering the 2010 through 2012 cruise seasons. The Legislature also gave the cruise industry an additional six years to meet Alaska’s clean water standards.

Gershon Cohen project director for CSAW said the years 2010-2012 permit violates Alaska’s existing Clean Water Act standards.

Earthjustice sued the state on behalf of Cohen’s organization. Although the state Superior Court sided with the plaintiffs in May, 2011, Cohen said in a recent telephone interview, the state has not presented an updated permit in the months since.

“The cruise ship discharge permit failed to require the ships to use the “best available technologies” to reduce the levels of pollutants in their discharges as required by the law...,” Cohen said in a recent press release, “...or to perform any economic analysis to demonstrate why full compliance shouldn’t be required.”

Major changes from the 2008 permit to the 2010 permit cover where cruise ship wastewater pollution levels are measured and allowable pollution limits within the wastewater.

The original permit required testing pollution levels at the point of discharge. The 2010 permit allows for some dilution into the surrounding water before pollution levels are tested, Edwardson said. He said the 2010 permit also has different limits for ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc depending on treatment system used.

“Any standard can be met by the ship as it is moving,” John Binkley president of the Alaska Cruise Association said in a recent phone interview. Trying to meet the standard at the point of discharge, where the wastewater had not diluted into the seawater, is more difficult, he said.

“We’ve already invested $200 million to put in the best available tech when we built these ships,” Binkley said.

Although using different manufacturers, each cruise ship that visits Alaska has “pretty much the same” technology for onboard wastewater treatment. “Different manufacturers go about it different ways, but the results are pretty similar,” Binkley said. “They are based around the standards set in Alaska in 2002.”

Binkley said the cruise industry already achieves the highest standard possible for wastewater treatment.

“Better than any community in Alaska,” Binkley said, “and thousands of times better than the Alaska Ferry.”

The Alaska DEC is currently working on its next Large Commercial Passenger Vessel Wastewater Permit. The permit is expected to be complete for the 2013 season, Edwardson said. He said the new permit will comply with Alaska Statutes.

Though the development process is an internal one, the department plans to have the permit out for a 60-day public notice period.

“We are hoping to get it out in early September,” Edwardson said.

The public may be able to comment in writing and at a public meeting “probably” in the second half of the public notice period, Edwardson said.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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