Two bills that change the water quality criteria used to measure cruise ship wastewater could see a Senate vote as early as next week.
The House’s wastewater bill shot straight through the Senate’s committee gauntlet and landed next to its companion bill in the Senate Finance Committee by Thursday morning. House Bill 80 had recently passed a House reconsideration vote 27-10.
Thursday morning in Senate Finance Committee, HB 80 was joined by Senate Bill 29 as the topic of public testimony.
If passed, the act would sunset a science panel convened to report on wastewater discharge and treatment technology. The Science Advisory Panel released its preliminary report late in 2012. A final report is currently scheduled for release in 2015.
In its preliminary report the panel found that current water treatment systems on cruise ships cannot meet water quality criteria for four substances at the point of discharge. No technology is on the horizon to bring water quality up to snuff by 2015. However, given a mixing zone, current technology could meet.
Mixing zones are an Alaska Department of Conservation permitted area of water where treated or untreated discharge that does not meet DEC criteria can dilute to acceptable levels.
The bills also do away with a 2006 cruise ship initiative criteria that required treated black water and grey water discharges to meet Alaska water quality standards “at the point of discharge” – where the effluent leaves the ship and enters the marine ecosystem.
Currently, a large majority of ships meet the standard in all but four criteria – ammonia and dissolved nickel, zinc and copper. It is the copper that has many salmon-lovers upset.
Bill proponents say the 2006 initiative tipped the scales away from the cruise industry requiring ships to meet higher standards than other sources of effluent. Often Alaska’s municipalities release lower quality treated wastewater than cruise ships. These systems meet standards and permit requirements with mixing zones.
The state and the cruise industry have been through much of this before, John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, said. In the late 1990s Gov. Tony Knowles’ administration set up a panel of scientists which completed extensive studies and the government set up new cruise ship wastewater standards.
The cruise industry invested $200 million in advanced wastewater treatment systems in the early 2000s, Binkley said.
“A significant investment,” Binkley called it. And it says something about the cruise industry, he said. It could have invested in larger onboard holding tanks and discharged effluent in offshore federal waters.
The industry now discharges near-drinking-water quality effluent, Binkley said.
Binkley said the 2006 initiative set a level of water quality unique to the cruise industry and larger ships.
“It was a level that was unattainable,” Binkley said.
Binkley said the science panel found no harm done by current cruise discharge and “all marine species were being fully protected.”
Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Anchorage, asked Binkley about reports of raw sewage being dumped in Southeast waters. Binkley called the reports “irresponsible” and “reckless.” Cruise ships release a constant stream of effluent, Binkley said. All near-drinking-water quality.
Dave Wetzel of Admiralty Environmental said a lot has changed onboard the ships since he started third-party monitoring of the cruise industry’s wastewater systems in 2000.
“In 2000 ships were discharging poor quality water,” Wetzel said. However, he said the industry corrected it problem since then, “The  initiative was trying to fix a problem we had already solved.”
Wetzel said he supported HB 80 and SB 29.
Opponents say Alaska’s reputation as a pristine state and the reputation of its wild seafood are at risk if cruise ships are not held to the standards laid out in the 2006 initiative. The cruise industry blackened its eye during a discharge scandal in the late 1990s. There is some skepticism of the industry and the science advisory panel report. Subsistence lifestyles, oyster farmers and other aquaculture entrepreneurs are concerned about the bioaccumulation of the metals discharged in cruise ship effluence.
Chip Thoma of Responsible Cruisers of Alaska asked the committee to extend the cruise industry’s current permit and let technology catch up. He said most of the ships come close to water quality standards and seven are permitted to discharge in port.
“We’re almost there,” Thoma said. Don’t remove the ‘at-the-pipe’ criteria and disband the science panel yet, he said.
Homer charter operator Pete Wedin said his business is based on the image of a pristine Alaska. The state and other organizations spend millions marketing that image to potential visitors and wastewater standards could jeopardized that image, he said.
Wedin said Homer’s Kachemak Bay area is home to many oyster farms. He asked that legislators add amendments to prevent cruise ship discharge near the oyster beds.
“It’s critical to the oyster farmers in Kachemak Bay who provide all us with a clean taste from a clean ocean,” Wedin said.
Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska opposes the bills. Melissa Kookesh, assistant to the council president, said the bills reduce state protection of its marine water quality and limit the ability for the public to get involved. To make a decision before the Science Advisory Panel has finalized its report in 2015 is premature.
“It is not based on the best science or the best available technology,” Kookesh said.
Via Waghiwi of St. Lawrence Island said her community relies on marine life for subsistence. She said the foods she and her neighbors gather contain high quantities of heavy metals and pesticides.
“Metals bioaccumulate in the meat of our traditional animals in the food chain,” Waghiwi said. “We are at the top of … the food chain.”
Waghiwi opposed the bills.
The committee took no action on the bills Thursday.
Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said deliberations are scheduled to continue on Friday with representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. If the committee is ready on Friday it will vote on the bills, he said.
“Next step is the senate floor,” Meyer said.
Sen. Anna Fairclough R-Anchorage requested for input on the effects of wastewater discharge on marine life from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Senate Bill 29 and House Bill 80 are scheduled to be heard in Senate Finance Committee today, Feb. 7 at 9 a.m. in capitol room 532.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.