In the rush to placate the desire of a profitable industry to end-run the requirement passed by voters in 2006 for large cruise ships to meet Alaska Water Quality Standards, many important facts and concerns are being ignored. Indeed, according to Michelle Ridgway, a professional marine ecologist who has over 30 years of experience researching undersea ecosystems and a member of the Scientific Advisory Panel appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell, the ‘fast track’ mode of the cruise ship wastewater legislation is allowing false statements to go unchallenged. For example, industry lobbyists and the Parnell Administration claim that technology is not available for cruise ships to realistically meet the water quality standards at the point of discharge as directed in the 2006 voter initiative. Many legislators as well as the media consider this statement a given, providing the rationale to allow cruise ships undefined mixing zones (read pollution zones for exceeding water quality).
Yet, one cruise ship being monitored by the Scientific Advisory Panel has already proven that the technology exists today to meet these standards at the end of the pipe without any economic hardship. The Carnival Spirit actually achieves the standard for the discharge of ammonia 9 out of 10 times, the standard for copper 8 out of 10 times, and the standard for nickel and zinc 10 times out of 10 times (all for an estimated 90 cents per passenger). The Seven Seas Navigator is not far behind; reaching the standard for copper and nickel 8 out of 10 times and the standard for zinc 9 out of 10 times. The ships that are furthest behind in deploying the best available technology to meet these standards are the Princess ships. But even for these ships the requirement to comply is flexible as DEC has the ability to account for the permittee’s ability to use “economically feasible methods” of pollution prevention. In other words there is a loophole that you could drive a cruise ship through. Yet, somehow we should accept that this is not good enough for a profitable industry that markets Alaska’s pristine environment?
It does not end there. So WHY haven’t some ships performed as well as others during the interim grace period provided by the compromise legislation these past three years? Part of the answer may lay in the manner with which DEC applied its permitting flexibility. The current permit system allows for different standards to be met by each ship, depending upon their past performance. If a company has committed corporate resources to meet clean water standards as part of their commitment to sustainability and clean cruising, they are held to a higher standard in the subsequent permit year. Yet ships that perform poorly in cleaning wastewater are rewarded under the ADEC permit system by earning more liberal standards in the following year. Were DEC to level the playing field, and give the entire fleet the same standard that is aimed toward meeting water quality at the pipe then in the next few years, we may see that incentive yield better results: more ships cruising cleaner.
The other false statement that DEC is treating as fact, that there are no saltwater studies indicating that copper and other contaminants actually harm salmon and other marine life. Somehow the presence of dozens of published studies on the effects of heavy metals and ammonia on marine species are overlooked; studies which definitively show negative to lethal affects from contaminants far below what ships are discharging. Furthermore, some of these studies are the backbone for EPA aquatic toxicity criteria, upon which Alaska’s saltwater Water Quality Criteria are based. Ms. Ridgway provided the Senate Finance Committee, 75 citations for published studies that conclude that copper, nickel and ammonia are toxic to salmon and other marine life at very low concentrations in saltwater. But these studies are being ignored in the rush to push the wastewater bill through the Legislature.
The compromise legislation that originally established the Science Advisory Panel set 2015 as the target date to submit final findings on the availability and deployment of technology for meeting water quality standards at the end of the pipe. In essence, there is no need to rush to judgment. There is no need to fast track HB 80 unless the real desire of the cruise ship industry is to back away from clean cruising. There is no need for the Parnell Administration to push so aggressively unless it is their desire to keep the Legislature from fully considering the scientific truths that Ms. Ridgway has earnestly put forward.
Here in Juneau, 58 percent of voters supported the passage of the cruise ship initiative in 2006. They did this not out of a desire to be punitive to an industry vital to Juneau’s economy, but rather to promote compatibility of our resource industries and to protect the very waters that we and our visitors appreciate. Yet, the will of the public to promote clean cruising is about to be undone in order to placate the large cruise ship corporations that wield their substantial influence within the Parnell Administration. The only remaining hope is for the Alaska Senate to hit the pause button, consider the implications on moving away from incentivizing clean cruising and then extend the timeline so that more ships can access the available technology to meet Alaska’s water quality standards.
• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas.