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Cruise lines sailing in Alaska have to meet the strictest wastewater discharge standards in the world by 2010, and they told state regulators this year they can't do it.
They say there's no such technology available.
The Department of Environmental Conservation, which is charged with enforcing the standards, is not taking them at their word.
A DEC-hired contractor reported Wednesday at a tech session in Juneau on whether any technologies could help the cruise ships comply with the law.
The short answer, so far, is that there are land-based treatment technologies available that would help cruise lines meet the standards, but they haven't yet been adapted for vessels. And any new technologies, vendors told the agencies, are likely to take about two years to implement. At least two cruise lines are conducting their own pilot projects now, though they don't have results yet.
But it doesn't look like ships will meet their 2010 deadline. In fact, no ships currently have systems that meet the stricter standards they'll be required to meet next year. The systems were built for looser wastewater standards.
Alaska law is stricter for cruise ships than for other dischargers because voters deemed it so. They passed a 2006 ballot initiative that required DEC to sample cruise ship discharge at the end of the pipe, before it has had a chance to dilute. The cruise ships have looser standards until 2010.
But that could change. State lawmakers are considering a bill this session that would allow DEC to relax the rules for cruise ships. But until then, DEC is managing to the law in place.
And whether or not the law changes - DEC has avoided taking a stand on whether that should happen - the agency is obliged to look at the best available treatment technology.
How promising new technologies are is up for debate. Cruise watchdogs and some vendors were excited. Cruise industry reps were pessimistic. DEC officials withheld judgment - until they digest the workshop's lessons and publish their findings in mid-April.
What happens if DEC comes out with a different idea of what's feasible than cruise ships?
The agency doesn't have an answer for that yet. But DEC's plan is not to endorse any one technology and require it on ships, said DEC cruise ship program manager Denise Koch. The cruise lines are responsible for their own compliance. The agency just wants to know what's available and feasible.
"We need that knowledge to make permitting decisions that make sense," she said.
Gershon Cohen of Responsible Cruising for Alaska said he was particularly excited about one presenter's way to break down ammonia. In contrast to some other systems, it might be about refrigerator-size, cheap and easy to install.
"She knocked everybody's socks off," he said of the Ohio University presenter.
But some socks stayed on. Industry engineers said this was a particularly tricky problem, and one they'd already spent lots of time and money on. The systems have to fit in small spaces, deal with large waste streams, and go through lengthy bureaucratic approval processes before they get on ships.
"If it was easy to do, it wouldn't just be cruise ships doing this," said Rich Pruitt, environmental manager for Royal Caribbean International.
He estimated the company has spent more than $100 million on water treatment systems so far, and said the average ship's system now costs $3 million to $5 million.
None of the cruise reps said they were inspired by any of the new technologies, at least not for their short deadline.
"This is a good start. It's brought a few ideas out. I'm not sure anyone has convinced me that they're ready," said Randy Fiebrandt of Norwegian Cruise Line.
Fiebrandt has his own contractors delving into ways to modify Norwegian ships' existing treatment systems. They're going to try to make the 2010 deadline. But he noted that for five months each year, Norwegian's ships can't afford to test out unreliable systems because they're sailing in Alaska.
"If there were reception facilities in port, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion," he said.
That's what Cohen, who co-wrote the ballot initiative that required these strict standards, would like to see happen.
Add it to the list of possibilities: Rather than ships changing their individual systems, cities could upgrade their own sewage treatment plants - many of which release more polluted streams than cruise ships - and treat cruise waste and city waste to a higher standard themselves. The upgrades, Cohen said, could be paid for with cruise head tax revenue.
"Everybody wins," he said.