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Cruise industry wins wastewater mixing zones

Posted: February 19, 2013 - 3:53pm  |  Updated: February 20, 2013 - 12:05am
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate Majority Caucus press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday after the senate passed the cruise ship wastewater permit bill. Sen. Giessel was the bill's most vocal supporter.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate Majority Caucus press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday after the senate passed the cruise ship wastewater permit bill. Sen. Giessel was the bill's most vocal supporter.

The Alaska State Senate passed the governor's controversial cruise ship wastewater legislation Tuesday morning. Proponents of the bill enjoyed a solid win with 15 out of 20 votes.

The bill was sent to Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk for his signature.

House Bill 80 eliminates a water quality criterion in the 2006 citizens initiative on cruise industry taxes and water quality that requires large passenger vessels to meet state standards at the point of discharge — measured where the effluent leaves the ship.

With the requirement removed, the Alaska Department of Conservation can write permits for cruise ships that allow for mixing zones in the marine environment in which to dilute discharged wastewater.

Proponents of the bill said the cruise industry is using the best available wastewater treatment technology and still can not meet all point-of-discharge requirements. They argued that the cruise industry should be allowed to use mixing zones in the same way as municipal wastewater systems, seafood processors and other dischargers.

Parnell’s Environmental Conservation commissioner, Larry Hartig, has said the proposal would align rules for cruise ships with those for others that get discharge permits from the agency. And supporters insist the cruise industry will continue to be held to high standards.

Proponents said it was not yet technologically possible for the cruise industry to meet the bill’s previous demands.

During the debate, Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said there had been “considerable hyperbole and confusion” about what the bill does.

She said HB80 does not lower water quality standards or limit the Department of Environmental Conservation’s authority to consider new technologies for wastewater treatment as they become available. Giessel, who carried the bill on the floor, said HB80 does not rollback the high standards already in place and “definitely” does not allow for the discharge of partially treated or untreated wastewater.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said she could cast her vote in favor of the bill “in good conscience, as a fish-loving, fish eating Alaskan.”

Opponents had argued that relaxing the initiative’s requirements risks the health of the state’s residents, its salmon fisheries and its image as a clean and pristine destination.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, lost his bid to amend the bill by giving the industry more time to meet the water quality criteria passed by the state's voters.

Egan said he was disheartened by the lack of opposition within the Senate.

"I thought there were going to be more no votes," Egan said in an interview after the Senate floor session. "We tried everything."

Egan said he would have preferred the Senate pass an amendment he proposed to postpone certain stringent water quality requirements until 2020. Giving the cruise industry more time to come into compliance.

"I tried last week," Egan said. "It is tough."

In a somewhat unusual action for the Senate Chambers, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, objected to a call for a unanimous “yes” vote for the date on which the law takes effect. House Bill 80 has an immediate effective date. A two-thirds majority vote was required.

He argued that "The actual effective date and time of an Act having an immediate-effective-date provision is 12:01 a.m., Alaska Standard Time, on the day after it is signed by the governor...," according to Alaska Statute 1.10.070.

Had the vote for an effective date failed, "You would have a good bill that would do nothing," Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said during a press availability after the floor vote.

The new law would essentially never go into effect.

• Empire reporter Russell Stigall and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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