Harris introduces legislation to rethink wastewater limits

Bill proposes state agency, not voters, should make rules

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lawmakers have introduced a bill this year allowing the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to override voter-mandated limits on cruise ship wastewater discharges.

"Let DEC be the decider," said Alaska Cruise Association president John Binkley.

Cruise lines say the 2006 ballot initiative was unreasonable. They've been trying to get around its requirement that their ships have to meet Alaska water quality standards at the end of the discharge pipe.

Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, introduced the bill at the request of the cruise lines.

He criticized the ballot initiative process that resulted in the current rules.

"It's all hype by anybody on either side," he said. "At least in our process you have public hearings, you have debate, you have an open environment."

Cruise ships have more stringent requirements than other dischargers, such as municipal wastewater treatment plants, which are allowed so-called mixing zones. The water quality standards are the same for both. But other dischargers can get regulators to sample the discharge a little distance from the pipe, thus allowing it to dilute first.

Cruise ships argue they should be held to the same standards as everybody else.

Environmental watchdog and mixing zone expert Gershon Cohen, who cowrote the 2006 ballot initiative, has said that cruise ships are crucially different from other dischargers: They're mobile. That introduces uncertainty not present for land-based dischargers - for example, a fisherman doesn't know if a cruise ship has just discharged wastewater in the area where he intends to fish.

"That sounds plausible, but I'm not sure the science bears that out," said Binkley, again stressing that DEC scientists should decide.

Cruise ship program manager Denise Koch did not comment directly on whether the Department of Environmental Conservation would allow mixing zones, were the bill to pass.

Cosponsors of the bill are other House Republicans from around the state: Reps. Mike Kelly of Fairbanks, Kyle Johansen of Ketchikan, Richard Foster of Nome, Mike Chenault of Nikiski, John Coghill of North Pole, and Craig Johnson of Anchorage.

Harris said he didn't have a take on whether the ships should get mixing zones, but he echoed Binkley's position that DEC should be the one to decide.

Treatment technology

The bill is being introduced days before more information comes to light on whether cruise ships may be able to comply with the current standards.

"It's premature, and we think we're going to be able to address everything with funding and technology that is available," said Chip Thoma, a cosponsor of the 2006 ballot initiative with Cohen.

Until further notice, DEC is taking samples at the end of the pipe, as the voters told them to do.

But cruise lines have said they don't know of any technologies that would get them there by 2010. For now, they have somewhat relaxed interim standards on certain effluents.

Ships that discharge in Alaska waters have advanced wastewater treatment systems, but they're still having trouble meeting standards on ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc.

DEC is helping them look.

The department hired a contractor, Oasis Environmental, which will present its findings with tech vendors, state regulators and cruise lines this week.

"It's ultimately their responsibility to comply with the law, but we want to be knowledgeable," Koch said.

Binkley said he applauded DEC's decision to convene the tech conference.

"We trust (the Department of Conservation) with the authority to make those determinations," he said.

DEC's research could come in handy if House Bill 134 passes and the department starts looking at mixing zones for ships.

The ships would still have to satisfy mixing zone criteria, which include a requirement that DEC know what feasible treatment technologies there are, Koch said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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