Cruise ships are a staple of the summertime horizon in Juneau, but rules put in place last year allow some of the 36 vessels that navigate Alaska waters to release treated wastewater while tied up at the capital city’s docks.
The wastewater is a mixture of greywater — water that comes from the floating cities’ showers, sinks, dishwashers and laundry machines, and blackwater — water containing human waste. By the state’s definition, blackwater mixed with greywater is still considered blackwater.
Thousands of gallons of water per ship are run through on-board treatment systems — including microfiltration and ultraviolet sanitation — before being piped into the ocean. The wastewater is treated to the point that it is clear again.
Eighteen ships are permitted to offload this treated sewage into Alaska waters. Those that aren’t approved to discharge while docked are allowed to while moving at a speed of six knots or more, allowing the wastewater to be better diluted.
Water quality specialists who report to the heads of cruise line companies and send findings to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation are on board to test this wastewater regularly. But instead of ships being required to meet water quality guidelines at the end of their wastewater discharge pipes, as they were under previous DEC rules, they now only need to meet requirements once the waste has been diluted in an area that trails behind the ship, called a “mixing zone.”
The new general permit is a result of the Alaska Legislature’s House Bill 80, which repealed a citizen initiative ballot measure passed in 2006 that required the more stringent end-of-pipe regulations for cruise ship wastewater. The legislation was brought in 2013 by then-Gov. Sean Parnell.
The DEC’s website says the Legislature changed the rules because they were unfair to cruise ship operators — “the quality of the treated effluent had to meet these high standards in the pipe, within the ship, before it is discharged into the ocean – but only for discharges from cruise ships, and not from any other dischargers. Cruise ships have been able to meet this stringent requirement for all but four parameters (ammonia and dissolved copper, nickel, and zinc).”
The new permit also lumps all cruise ship water treatment systems into one category, rather than parsing them out based on how well they clean water. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is considering an appeal of the cruise ship discharge general permit to the DEC because the organization believes the public should have a right to comment on every vessel that applies for a permit because of differences in treatment systems. The DEC gathered public comment on the general permit itself, collecting more than 100 responses, according to DEC cruise ship program specialist Ed White.
SEACC’s Guy Archibald said that’s not enough. The organization will argue that the public process for cruise ship discharge permitting is not as stringent or transparent as other state permitting processes, he said.
“It’s one thing to class these kinds of treatment systems together, it’s another thing to enforce that they’re operating correctly,” he said over the phone this week. “It’s public water, (Alaskans) should be allowed to be part of the process.”
John Binkley, Cruise Lines International Association of Alaska president and former state legislator, said cruise ship water treatment technology “has changed dramatically” over the years.
The wastewater “goes through a process that actually sterilizes the water before it’s discharged,” he said by phone Friday. “The new systems are treated to virtual drinking water standards. ... I drink the water (when visiting on board a ship); it’s perfectly safe to drink.”
The CLIA website says the industry has upped its standards since 2001, when the Alaska Legislature implemented “tough, new wastewater discharge standards.”
Cruise ships clean water better than Alaska’s municipal water treatment plants do, Binkley said.
“Something significant that could be required to improve water quality would be to require cruise ship visitors to use the restroom on the ship before they get on shore,” he said. “That would allow for much higher quality treatment of the waste.”
According to DEC data, the Juneau-Douglas water treatment plant is permitted to discharge 6 million gallons of treated wastewater into Gastineau Channel per day. The maximum amount allowed of a cruise ship is 380,000 gallons per day, White said. One ship that had just turned in its required monthly report to DEC had discharged a million gallons of treated wastewater in Alaska waters in the last three weeks of May, he said.
The requirements on CBJ’s water treatment plants aren’t too different from the requirements on cruise ships, White said. They have tighter limits for ammonia and higher limits for fecal bacteria.
“It is difficult to compare municipalities to cruise ships,” he said. “Municipal facilities are often much older, they have higher flow rates, they have very variable flow, and they may not have much control over what goes into the system.”
Of the ships permitted to discharge this year, 12 of them can pump out greywater while tied up at city docks, and eight of those can also offload the greywater-blackwater mixture, according to DEC documents.
Mike Stekoll, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Alaska Southeast and a member of the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative Science Advisory Panel for Wastewater in the early 2000s, said the worry about pumping treated sewage into a protected port area is that a lack of water circulation will cause a buildup of nutrients harmful to marine life.
“The water going out (of the ships) should be fairly clean in terms of pathogens and any solids,” he said, but nutrients remaining in the treated water could cause “undesirable blooms of algae,” and heavy metals could accumulate in fish and plants.
“It’s like, if you had treated wastewater coming into your bath tub, what would you want to do with it,” Stekoll said.
Still, it’s hard to know what the impact, if any, of wastewater discharge on aquatic life could be, he said.
“Trying to guess what the whole effect is going to be on everything is pretty tough to figure out,” Stekoll said.
Archibald said SEACC’s focus right now isn’t “whether or not these ships are allowed to discharge in port, it’s do the public” get a say in it.
More than a million people are expected to visit Juneau on cruise ships this year, according to the Juneau Economic Development Council’s annual report. The highest-volume ship that visits Juneau, the Ruby Princess, will bring a total of 73,150 visitors alone over the course of the summer, according to a Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau schedule.
“Cruise ships bring a big chunk of the economy to Juneau,” he said. “A lot of local families, a lot of the fishermen (benefit from that). ... That’s fine and dandy, but the costs that these fishermen and local people are paying for this increased revenue at least ought to be known to them. There should be a venue to ascertain to make that judgement whether that cost benefit works out.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.