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My Turn: Science panel's work ends as DEC's continues

Posted: February 13, 2013 - 1:00am

The Department of Environmental Conservation’s mission is to protect human health and the environment – including keeping Alaska’s waters healthy.

We accomplish this by setting water quality standards to protect marine and other life. We use these standards and other protective measures to develop permits we issue for operators that discharge treated wastewater, such as treatment plants run by local governments and a variety of industries throughout the state.

We periodically review our standards in light of new and relevant science. We update our standards through a public process that includes Environmental Protection Agency review and approval. Our permits are also periodically renewed and updated to incorporate changes in our standards and to take advantage of new treatment technologies.

House Bill 80, legislation currently before the Alaska Senate, deals with treated wastewater from cruise ships. It does not lower standards, nor does it limit DEC’s authority to consider new technologies as they become available.

The bill allows large cruise ships that are already using the best wastewater treatment systems available, to have their permits issued under the same protective standards and requirements as all plants requiring state permits from DEC.

There are a number of steps that have led to the legislation. An initiative approved by the voters in 2006 required all cruise ships to meet state water quality standards “at the point of discharge,” that is, in the ship’s discharge pipe before the treated effluent mixes with the receiving water. This requirement was not imposed on any other plants discharging similar wastes in the state.

Following approval of the initiative in 2006, a concern arose that cruise ships would not be able to meet the new “at the point of discharge” requirement.

Cruise companies had just spent millions of dollars to upgradeto Advanced Wastewater Treatment Systems. A panel of experts had concluded AWTS are very effective systems.

Although the quality of effluent was generally better than that discharged by municipal plants, data collected by DEC showed the ships with AWTS still didn’t meet all standards “at the point of discharge.”

The Alaska Legislature amended the law in 2009 to do two things: It allowed temporary relief from the “at the point of discharge” requirement through 2015, and provided for another technology review.

DEC convened a new panel that included expert engineers and marine architects. The panel held 15 public meetings in 2011-12, culminating in a public workshop in Juneau last fall.

The panel reported to DEC in November that the current AWTS are still the best available treatment systems for large cruise ships, and there are no new systems on the horizon that would allow these ships to consistently meet the “at the point of discharge” requirement.

This conclusion is consistent with the earlier panel’s findings and the report produced from a technology conference convened by DEC in 2009.

The current panel accomplished the task given to them in the 2009 legislation. Given the panel’s conclusions, it isn’t necessary for them to continue to meet for another two years, particularly when the periodic renewal of state permits already allows for the incorporation of new technologies and better operational practices on a continuing basis for all permitted waste treatment plants.

Further, many concerns recently raised in the media, such as the acceptable standard for copper, or permit limitations needed to assure ships meet DEC’s mixing zone requirements (no bioaccumulation, no reduction in fish or shellfish population levels, etc.), were never part of the panel’s assignment from the Legislature.

These are topics recently introduced, and can be fully addressed through the public processes DEC uses to set standards and issue permits.

DEC will continue to address these issues with the best science available, whether the treated wastewater is coming from a municipal treatment plant, a fish processor, a mine, a cruise ship or any other permitted operator. HB 80 does not change this, nor does it alter DEC’s mission to protect Alaska’s waters.

• Hartig is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

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