Two bills racing through the Legislature aim to ease wastewater standards for large passenger vessels in Alaska waters. House Bill 80 and Senate Bill 29 are scheduled to receive public comment in Senate Finance Thursday, Feb. 7.
Proponents of the bills say current water quality requirements are too strict and that the cruise industry should receive permits for mixing zones like other marine dischargers. Opponents say softening water quality criteria threatens human and marine health and the perception of Alaska as a pristine state.
HB 80 passed the Alaska House of Representatives 27-9 on Monday. It passed on reconsideration Wednesday morning. The Senate has since referred the bill to its Finance Committee.
If passed, the new law would remove language from the 2006 Cruise Ship Citizens Initiative requiring that water quality standards be met at the point of discharge — without a mixing zone. The new law would also sunset a Legislature-mandated Science Advisory Panel. The panel was tasked to research cruise ship discharge and wastewater treatment technology and make recommendations. The panel released its preliminary report in late 2012. The Department of Environmental Conservation agreed with the panel’s findings. The bills were released on Gov. Sean Parnell’s behest.
Cruise ships visiting Alaska’s waters already use the most advanced waste treatment technology that is economically feasible, according to the science panel. While current technology can not meet Alaska water quality standards at the point of discharge, the panel said, no technological updates are on the near horizon that would make that so. The panel recommended elimination of the at the pipe standard.
One panel member, Auke Bay resident Michelle Ridgeway said her dissenting opinion was not sufficiently included in the panel’s findings.
SB 29 was heard Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee. DEC Director Division of Water Lynn Kent said the bill has no fiscal cost to the state during its introduction.
Though the legislation would remove some of the requirements of the 2006 cruise ship initiative, many would remain.
Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Kevin Meyer R-Anchorage said treatment technology could improve over time.
“There may be a point in time when we can meet higher standards,” Meyer said. He asked Kent if HB80 or SB29 would still allow the state to require new technology.
As waste treatment technology evolves the state can tighten permit requirements, incentivizing adoption of newer technology, Kent said.
Certified Ocean Rangers will also continue to ride around 90 percent of cruise ships in Alaska’s waters to monitor discharge logs and report back to DEC.
“They are our eyes and ears,” Kent said.
Large passenger vessels like cruise ships are currently exempt from the requirement to meet Alaska water quality criteria as the discharge leaves the ship. It is allowed to use a mixing zone for dilution. Either bill would lock in this exemption.
The cruise industry says that it should be treated similar to the 100 or more Alaskan communities with wastewater mixing zones and other marine dischargers.
As things are now, large and small passenger vessels, under 250 berths, will be required to meet criteria at the point of discharge after 2015.
Sen. Anna Fairclough R-Anchorage asked Kent if the state had any control over cruise ships dumping in donut holes – federal water surrounded by state waters. Cruise ships can dump less treated water in federal waters three miles off the coast and further. Fairclough said fishers in her district are concerned that cruise ships target those state-surrounded federal waters and repeatedly dump in these spots to save money on treatment.
Kent said the DEC has eliminated the donut holes by using state requirements.
During his press availability Wednesday morning, Gov. Sean Parnell was asked if the bills could harm the seafood industry’s brand based around clean and pristine Alaska waters.
“I would not propose a bill that I thought would damage our environment,” Parnell said. “The standards … are among or surpass the most stringent in the world.”
Parnell said that when voters passed the cruise ship initiative they were unaware that there was no technology available that would meet the point of discharge standard.
Senate Bill 29 and House Bill 80 are scheduled for public comment in Senate Finance Committee at 9 a.m. Thurs. in capitol room 532.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at email@example.com.