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Plans for testing of cruise ship wastewater discharges this year have been complicated by the new regulatory role of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative, a cooperative roundtable of the industry, environmentalists and regulators, set up a voluntary testing program last year for discharges and air emissions.
Now, however, the Coast Guard has a formal responsibility for a wastewater testing program under federal legislation brokered by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, which was passed in the lame duck session of Congress.
Last year, the Cruise Ship Initiative developed a testing procedure and implemented it, taking and analyzing samples from 21 large ships, with the industry picking up the tab.
This year, the group is in many ways only advisory to the Coast Guard, which expects to issue regulations or port notices in the spring establishing the testing program.
Lt. Cmdr. Spencer Wood of the Coast Guard, who is co-chairman of the initiative's water working group, emphasized to group members Thursday that they can't write Coast Guard regulations.
"Can you talk to yourself later and say what happened at this meeting?" asked Tom Dow of Princess Cruises.
"There's a sticky wicket there of whether I can talk to myself," Wood joked. "I think that I can."
But the initiative's diminished role didn't prevent some tense moments.
The most sensitive subject is the timing of public reports on what test results show. Debate centered on whether a recently convened panel of scientists, or some other third party, should review test results from the contracted laboratory before they're made public.
Industry representatives say they were "badly burned" last fall by what turned out to be an erroneous finding of heptachlor, a banned pesticide and carcinogen.
Additional laboratory work determined that the first results were "a false positive." But by then, the news had gone literally around the world, and it was only in Alaska that the public heard about the correction, Dow said.
"I think we need to have somebody who is an expert in understanding this stuff verify that it's accurate ... before we have the peanut gallery making general comments on it," he said.
Chip Thoma of Juneau, representing the Alaska Conservation Alliance, said that with some pollutants the results should be checked carefully.
But Thoma said that with fecal coliform bacteria, which were found in astronomical numbers in most ship discharge samples taken last season, there is no reason to hold off.
"I think the public understands it," Thoma said. "This is a very basic issue. ... By July 1, we want to know exactly what's coming out of these ships."
David Rogers of the Department of Environmental Conservation, co-chairman of the water working group, has taken the position that once a report ends up on his desk, it's public.
But Capt. Ed Page, the chief of marine safety and environmental protection for the Coast Guard in Alaska, said in an interview he has the latitude to hold on to the information until he's confident it's right.
"We're not going to give raw data out to the public before we know what it is," Page said. "We just want to be able to say, 'This is what it means.' "
With results that are consistent with past testing, that probably means a quick turnaround, he said.
Last year, the Coast Guard, in overseeing the collection of samples, was doing something it had never done before.
"We flat didn't understand some of the numbers and the information as it was presented," Page said. Now, the agency has greater confidence, he said.
Previously, the Coast Guard had only one regulatory hammer: The agency could issue citations to cruise lines if ships had malfunctioning Marine Sanitation Devices, which treat blackwater, or toilet waste. But if the devices were working, the numbers of fecal coliform and suspended solids didn't matter because there was no environmental standard for them in federal law. Graywater from galleys, showers, laundries and sinks was completely unregulated.
In addition to banning the discharge of raw sewage in Alaskan waters, Murkowski's law sets numerical standards for treated blackwater discharges, creates the possibility of such standards for graywater, and bars either from being discharged under a mile from shore or at a speed of less than six knots. The Coast Guard is directed to conduct sampling that assures compliance.
Sampling that isn't required by law - such as graywater that is not being discharged within a mile of shore or at less than six knots - will be done on a voluntary basis as a result of the Cruise Ship Initiative. Dow said the test results will continue to show high fecal coliform levels because ships have not yet been fitted with treatment technologies that only recently have been developed.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.