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Cruise ship wastewater standards testimony heard

Auke Bay panelist disagrees with panel findings

Posted: January 28, 2013 - 10:39pm  |  Updated: January 29, 2013 - 1:07am

A dissenting member of the science advisory panel asked legislators to slow down work on a set of bills that would alter a citizens initiative requirement for cruise ship waste water discharge.

The main contention comes from how House Bill 80 and Senate Bill 29 remove the requirement that cruise ships meet wastewater standards at the point of discharge – at the mouth of the black water pipe. The bills allow for mixing zones around moving and stationary large commercial passenger vessels while in Alaska waters.

Alaska Marine Highway System ferries do not fall into this category of vessel.

Gov. Sean Parnell requested House and Senate Rules committees to introduce HB 80 and SB 29 respectively.

Cruise industry officials and a state-selected science advisory panel have said water treatment technology will not exist by 2015 at an economically feasible cost that would treat water to meet water quality standards at the pipe. However, they’ve said if the pollution is diluted into a mixing zone the standards can be met with the wastewater treatment systems already on board Alaska-bound cruise ships.

At six knots and faster pollution from ships onboard blackwater and graywater systems is diluted to meet state and federal water quality standards within seconds of discharge, according to the Science Advisory Panel’s preliminary report.

“…acute and chronic exposures would not occur” to humans or wildlife, the panel reported.

This reduction in water quality standards is what the cruise industry has said is needed to give it long-term regulatory certainty. Opponents say loosening discharge requirements will harm Alaska’s seafood market, the health of its residents and its image as a pristine state.

The non-profit environmental group Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters introduced a successful citizens initiative in 2006 that set up new tax and water quality requirements for cruise ships in state waters. Ballot Measure 2 mandated $50 head tax, reduced in 2010, funds cruise-related infrastructure improvements to port towns and funds onboard Ocean Rangers who monitor cruise ship discharges in Alaska.

The initiative also repealed Alaska Statute 46.03.462 and reenacted language that stipulates large vessels “may not discharge untreated sewage, treated sewage, graywater or other wastewaters in a manner that violates any applicable effluent limits or standards under state or federal law, including Alaska Water Quality Standards governing pollution at the point of discharge.” It is these last five words Gov. Parnell’s bills aim to delete.

Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Water cruise ship program issued a wastewater discharge permit in 2008 that the Alaska State Legislature deemed too stringent. DEC released a new permit that covered the 2010 through 2012 cruise seasons. It waved the requirement that water quality standards be met at the point of discharge and allows for some dilution into the surrounding water before pollution levels are tested. The 2010 permit also has different limits for ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc depending on treatment system used.

The Legislature also granted the cruise industry an additional six years to incorporate new technologies that allow ships to meet Alaska’s clean water standards.

DEC is currently working on a wastewater permit for the 2013 through 2015 seasons. It expects to release the permit in April.

The governor’s bills have received support from much of Alaska’s business community, Andy Rogers deputy director of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce said during testimony in Senate Resources Committee on Friday.

“In fact it was one of the positions advanced by membership and approved this fall at our legislative priority forum,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the science panel’s finding fit with the state chamber’s position to advocate for regulations based on sound science.

“As opposed to a cautionary method,” Rogers said.

The economic impacts of the cruise industry reach far afield of the docks and ports passengers visit, Rogers said, but they rely on the economic impact and revenues generated and the jobs created in part by this industry.

John Kimmel assistant operations manager for Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska agreed.

“This is basically about jobs,” Kimmel said.

Kimmel said his organization supports passage of SB 29. Kimmel testified during the bill’s hearing in Senate Resources Committee on Friday.

Cruise ships should be held to same water quality standard as all other sources of pollutants, Kimmel said.

“The original initiative held them to a higher standard than everyone else,” Kimmel said. “This fix is going to make it more fair for the cruise lines.”

Kimmel said legislators should consider the science advisory panel’s three years of deliberation.

“I think it is time that we move on and listened to what the science advisory panel has to say and also what DEC has to say,” Kimmel said.

“But it would be under the existing law, the law that we are struggling to meet now,” Larry Hartig Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Conservation said during testimony in House Resources Committee on Jan. 25.

Earthjustice and CSAW sued the state to force DEC to re-write its 2010-2012 permit. CSAW Project Director Gershon Cohen permit violates Alaska’s existing Clean Water Act standards. The Superior Court of Alaska sided with the plaintiffs in May of 2011.

“The cruise ship discharge permit failed to require the ships to use the best available technologies to reduce the levels of pollutants in their discharges as required by the law...,” Cohen said in a 2012 press release, “...or to perform any economic analysis to demonstrate why full compliance shouldn’t be required.”

At the point of discharge means measuring water quality while the effluent is still in the pipe in the ship.

“It has to be drinkable. You have to be able to swim in it. Fish would have to be able to live and thrive in it and all the microorganisms,” Commissioner Hartig said.

Cruise wastewater treatment did relatively well at meeting water criteria, Hartig said. Water met standards for all by four pollutants – ammonia and dissolved copper, nickel and zinc, he said. Cruise ships do better by and large than shore based facilities. But these ships were still not consistently meeting water quality standards in the pipe. Hence the passage of House Bill 134 in 2009 that temporarily removed the at-the-point-of-discharge requirement as long as ships used the best available water treatment technology that is economically feasible.

Testing at the pipe will resume in 2015 if neither HB 80 nor SB 29 pass. With testing at the point of discharge permanently removed, Hartig said, cruise ships will be held to the same standards as on-shore treatment facilities.

House Bill 134 established a Science Advisory Panel that would create a report to the Legislature on the effectiveness of current onboard wastewater treatment systems, the effectiveness and cost of new technology and the environmental benefits of requiring the cruise industry to adopt advanced technology. The panel met more than a dozen times in person and telephonically from 2010 to 2012. Panel members met most recently in Sept. 2012 in Juneau.

The panel’s preliminary report, with which DEC concurs, finds that new technologies would not create a significant difference to pollution levels at the point of discharge. The report said water quality discharge levels can only be met currently through mixing zones that travel down the side of the ship and churns up pollution in the trailing wake.

The panel’s preliminary report gave passing grades to the cruise industry’s current technology.

“The advanced wastewater treatment systems, the ones incorporated on the ships in 2004, are the best available technology,” Hartig said. “You can’t go out there and purchase something to put on the ships that is better.”

However, not all panelists agree with the group’s preliminary findings.

During public testimony in House Resources and Senate Resources Committees on Friday Auke Bay resident and Science Advisory Panel member Michelle Ridgeway said she disagreed that Alaska needed to soften its water standards. To do so now, she said, would threaten to disrupt a potential balance between the cruise industry and Alaska’s environment.

Ridgeway said she was speaking on her own behalf. She said work on HB 80 and SB 29 is premature.

“Because it appears that technologically and scientifically we are arriving at … balancing a great industry with sustaining our marine ecosystem,” Ridgeway said.

“We are getting close to finding success.”

Though only preliminary, the panel’s findings have propagated through state recommendations, she said.

Ridgeway said serving on the panel was a great honor. However, the decision by her fellow panel members to recommend mixing zones with current wastewater technology forced her to submit a letter of dissent to the DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig, she said.

During testimony Ridgeway said weakening water quality standards could do harm to Alaska’s fishing industry.

“We have a tremendous environment to make a stand for,” Ridgeway said. “And Alaska always has. We fight farmed salmon, we fight Franken-fish we fight anything that might impact salmon, salmon industry and our fish and wildlife as a whole.”

Water quality standards for cruise ship effluent include the regulation of ammonia, copper, lead, nickel and other metals.

Also to offer public testimony on Friday was local tour operator Bob Janes.

“I’m not an expert in this topic,” Janes said. “But I am in this business. I am going to send my kids to college on what this business has done for me.”

Janes said he turned to the expertise of the Science Advisory Panel to decide how he felt about the issue. He said he recommended legislators listen to the panel’s recommendations as well.

Joseph Sebastian has fished in Southeast Alaska for 35 years. He said the bills were bad for fishing.

“News flash. The biggest industry employer in the state of Alaska is the fishing industry,” Sebastian said. “Our industry’s whole claim to clean, pristine waters and inlets has to have a foundation in reality and science and in public perception.”

Sebastian said changing discharge requirements would compound stresses already affecting the world’s oceans – such as ocean acidification.

“And now we want to weaken and take a step back on our oceans,” Sebastian said. “This bill … is a slap in the face of thousands of Alaska’s fishing families.”

Chip Thoma of Responsible Cruising of Alaska testified that his organization recommends the state require cruise ships to dump waste in federal offshore waters – over three miles from shore.

“That would be the preference,” Thoma said.

Barring that, ships should discharge into municipal wastewater systems while at port, Thoma said. Some ships do not have the capacity to store wastewater until in federal waters. Princess Cruise Lines fleet already discharges some waste into the muni system while in port in Juneau, he said.

“We can’t handle solids” like grease, Thoma said. “But basic wastewater is fine.”

New technology will save the day for the cruise industry and Alaska’s environment, Thoma said.

Juneau’s proposed 16B panamax cruise dock slated to built in 2014 is designed with four wastewater hook-ups linked to Juneau’s water treatment, Thoma said. At least four ships a day could offload effluent while at port, he said.

Ship builders have also adopted the use of plastic water piping in ships.

"The best news for the cruise industry is that ship builders are not using copper pipes anymore,” Thoma said.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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