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Wastewater bill gets first reading on Senate floor

Juneau legislators: Extend less stringent criteria to 2020

Posted: February 12, 2013 - 1:02am

Governor Sean Parnell’s cruise ship wastewater legislation was introduced on the Senate floor Monday morning. Senate Majority Leader John Coghill R-North Pole asked to have the bill held at second reading until the next floor session.

While Juneau’s Democratic and Republican Legislative delegates may disagree on their support of Parnell’s wastewater bill, they agree that pushing back a deadline to meet water quality criteria “at the point of discharge” to 2020 is preferable to the elimination of those five important words.

While most dischargers in Alaska — municipalities, small vessels mines and oil and gas exploration — are granted Alaska Department of Conservation permits for use of mixing zones, in which effluent is diluted until it meets water quality criteria, cruise ships are required to meet these standards as the effluent leaves the vessel at the pipe. The provision was part of a 2006 citizens’ initiative on cruise ship wastewater and passenger fees.

Proponents of the bill say technology does not exist yet and the cruise industry has said it is unfair to demand stricter requirements of its vessels over other marine dischargers.

Opponents say most cruise ships meet most of Alaska’s water quality criteria already but agree the industry should be given more time to improve practices and technology. Concerns over the possible bioaccumulation of metals, effects of copper on salmon and Alaska’s image as a pristine wilderness have cause a substantial pushback to the fast-moving bills.

The legislation, introduced at the request of the governor, moved quickly through the House and Senate.

House Bill 80 passed the House on Feb. 6 after the defeat of three separate amendments. It caught up with its similarly titled companion bill in the Senate Finance Committee Feb. 7.

Senate Bill 29 moved out of the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 8.

Legislators have suggested amendments to the bills that sunset an exclusion from the at-the-point-of-discharge requirement Dec. 31, 2020 instead of 2015, only three years after new permits would need to be completed in April 2013. This proposed change would give the cruise industry more time to meet current water quality criteria and at-the-pipe requirement without its elimination altogether.

This is where Juneau’s delegation agrees.

Though Rep. Cathy Muñoz voted for HB 80 on the House floor, she also voted for an amendment similar to the one mentioned above. Rep. Beth Kerttula was absent due to family matters, however she said in an email interview that she would have voted against the governor’s bill. Sen. Dennis Egan is scheduled to hear the bill today on the Senate floor. In an interview Friday, Sen. Egan said he was surprised by how far the bill has already advanced.

“It feels like it is moving like crazy,” Egan said, “I’m afraid that there are a lot of folks that were not even aware until recently what is going on.”

Egan said he has heard from many of his constituents on this issue.

“People who earn their livelihood on the water are concerned,” Egan said, “Fishermen are concerned. We’ve heard from [United Fishermen of Alaska], we heard from [Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska] and they had concerns about creating these mixing zones in perpetuity.”

Egan said cruise ship wastewater technology is “impressive.”

“But they all don’t comply,” Egan said. “I guess my compromise is to try to give them a little more time.”

Egan said caution comes from being on the front lines when the state took the cruise industry to task for poor wastewater practices in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“I voted for it for a lot of different reasons,” Muñoz said.

The cruise lines have already invested heavily in technology to meet water quality standards Alaska set in the early 2000s, Muñoz said, adding that the investment has been largely successful.

“The discharge is meeting all but a few of the measureable standards,” Muñoz said, “The effluent is considered a higher quality effluent” than other Alaska dischargers.

The cruise industry’s current wastewater permits are set to expire in April. To ensure all ships are covered in Alaska waters, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation must complete the new permits before the start of the cruise season.

Muñoz said DEC would have to devote large amounts of resources to rewrite a permit that would last only three years.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Muñoz said.

Muñoz voted for an amendment proposed by Rep. Johnson to extend the exemption to 2020. At which point DEC could come back and reassess existing technology.

“I thought that was reasonable,” she said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula has worked on cruise ship wastewater issues since she introduced the first piece of legislation on the topic — a right to know what cruise lines are discharging. She said she is worried by what continued discharge of higher levels of copper than water quality criteria demand will do to Alaska’s salmon fishery.

“We know that fish are impacted by copper,” Kerttula said in an email interview, “You can Google ‘salmon and copper’ and find studies on this. With cruise ships crossing paths and discharging in similar areas — at what point does the amount of copper become so concentrated in a certain area that fish — and humans — are impacted?”

Rep. Kerttula said she would also want Alaskans to have access to information about when and where cruise ships discharge in Alaska waters.

“My final concern,” Kerttula said, “is that if we roll back the citizens’ initiative, we place Alaska behind 23 other states that more stringently regulate their waters by having broader no-discharge zones.”

House Bill 80 could be heard again by the Senate body as early as Tuesday at 11 a.m.

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

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