State water director talks cruise ships at Chamber

Says wastewater discharge offshore won't harm environment
Michelle Bonnet Hale, Director of the Alaska Department of Water, speaks about cruise ship waste water to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce during their luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday.

Cruise ship wastewater discharge does not harm fish habitats in Alaskan waters, and that will not change under a new law passed earlier this year that relaxes restrictions on the industry, the director of the Alaska Division of Water said at Thursday’s Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon.


Michelle Bonnet Hale made her pitch to a largely receptive audience that included many local businesspeople, saying that Alaska’s standards for cruise ship wastewater treatment are already as high as they can realistically be.

“All our cruise ships discharging in Alaska had advanced wastewater treatment systems,” Hale said. “In order to operate in Alaska, they had to have those AWTSes.”

Wastewater discharge standards for cruise ships in Alaska were heightened by a successful voter initiative in 2006 requiring large cruise ships’ effluent to meet state and federal standards at the point of discharge.

This year, the Alaska State Legislature approved Gov. Sean Parnell’s House Bill 80, which allows the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to authorize mixing zones for cruise ships by eliminating that “point of discharge” requirement. Under H.B. 80, which became law in early March, cruise ships will be able to discharge wastewater that does not immediately meet state and federal standards at the point of discharge into mixing zones.

“Water quality criteria can be exceeded very briefly in those small areas,” said Hale. “Before the department authorizes mixing zones, we do a very thorough analysis. So even though they can be exceeded in those small areas, we have to assure that the uses of the water body will be protected, and that’s uses by fish, uses by people.”

Former Chamber President Sheldon Winters asked Hale what the purpose is of allowing cruise ship mixing zones.

“I was a little confused on the need for mixing zones,” said Winters. “If all the cruise ships use the advanced wastewater system, and now they can test not at the point of discharge but further down the route, what’s the point — I’m not quite sure why they need mixing zones. What does that do?”

“It gets a little technical,” Hale replied. “Cruise ships, even though they’ve really done a lot to improve the effluent quality, the water that’s coming out of the ships, they still can’t meet water quality criteria for ammonia and dissolved copper, nickel and zinc. So the 2006 citizens’ initiative required that they meet water quality criteria for everything, and they can’t do it. They can’t meet it for those four parameters.”

Hale continued, “What those mixing zones do is they allow that effluent to be discharged where those four criteria aren’t met, but it will be met in the water very shortly after the discharge, or for a stationary vessel, looks like about 15 yards from the vessel.”

In response to another question from Juneau Port Director Carl Uchytil, Hale said the metals typically come from pipes — Juneau, for example, has copper pipes that contribute dissolved copper in trace amounts to city water and wastewater — while ammonia is a byproduct of organic waste.

In her presentation, Hale compared the output of Juneau’s wastewater treatment plants to that of a cruise ship she said discharged wastewater over the course of 14 hours on one day last summer while traveling between the vicinity of Juneau and the vicinity of Ketchikan.

According to Hale’s data, the cruise ship discharged 65,000 gallons over that distance, while Juneau’s treatment plants discharged about 3.5 million gallons.

“The discharge from these (advanced wastewater treatment) systems is a clear liquid,” said Hale. “It’s water. There’s only those four parameters (ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc) that aren’t met, and they’re at very low concentrations already. We don’t allow the discharge of untreated sewage.”

While H.B. 80 is now law, Hale noted that one of its provisions allows for the current general permit under which large cruise ships must operate to be extended. She said DEC staff are gathering information for a new permit reflecting the changes in statute.

“We’re looking at trying to write that for the next season,” Hale said. “We’re not exactly sure right now. We’re still sorting out exactly how we’re going to write that permit. And how we’ll do that is we’ll follow standard procedures. Ships will still have to use the advanced wastewater treatment systems. We’ll allow mixing zones only if those criteria are met, only if our analysis demonstrates that those criteria are met. We’ll include effluent limits, and we’ll require monitoring of the effluent. And we’ll assure that the water quality in the state of Alaska is protected. That’s what we do.”

Cathie Roemmich, the Chamber’s chief executive officer, had a question for Hale that sounded more like a statement.

“So, Michelle, overall, our water’s pretty darn good?” Roemmich said.

To laughter and applause, Hale replied, “Actually, overall, our water is great. It’s very good.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear,” said Roemmich.

Among the other attendees at Thursday’s luncheon were David Wetzel and Diana Cote, co-owners of Admiralty Environmental LLC, which conducts wastewater sampling aboard cruise ships in Alaska.

Wetzel called the presentation “really great” and “informative.”

“I’ve been hoping that DEC would start doing a little more public outreach to get the message across about … what the legislation really means, and the nuts and bolts of it, after all the political stuff has gone away, and I think that she did an excellent job of describing what goes on,” Wetzel said.

Jan Trigg, community relations manager for Coeur Alaska, agreed.

“I have high respect for Michelle, and it was good to hear her perspective,” said Trigg. “There’s so many fear factors that get thrown out that aren’t based on science. And I think that’s a problem with initiatives, is that often they are not always based on good science.”

Assemblymember Loren Jones was the only member of the Borough Assembly at the luncheon.

“I thought it was good,” Jones said of the presentation. “I enjoyed the information. I probably didn’t support the legislation (H.B. 80), but it’s good to know they’re still out monitoring.”

Asked whether the presentation alleviated his concerns over the mixing zones law, Jones replied, “To some extent, yes, but not totally. I mean, I appreciate the comparison between the cruise ships and, say, the city-borough discharge. And I realize that the cruise ships bring a lot less people on a year-round basis. But it’s all concentrated in the summer, and it’s all concentrated in Southeast Alaska. And if you have a million people whose effluent is being discharged in the same waters as a community of 30,000 people year-round, somehow I think the million people visiting, that has an impact that the effluent of 30,000 people year-round doesn’t have. It adds to it. So I still have some concerns.”

Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at


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