Labeling cruise ships "a unique and growing threat to the environment in this state," a bill introduced this morning by Gov. Tony Knowles would make Alaska the first state in the nation to regulate the industry.
"This is must-have legislation for Alaskans," Knowles said at a news conference. "We don't want people in our waters who can't perform. ... At some point, you're not welcome."
The Democratic governor said the legislation meshes with but goes beyond a federal law passed last year by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican. The industry's "disgraceful" performance last year, with only one of 80 samples of treated sewage meeting all federal and state discharge standards, requires state as well as federal scrutiny, Knowles said.
Although welcoming the new federal oversight, Knowles said Alaskans can never again be dependent solely upon the federal government for monitoring cruise ships, which has been inadequate in the past. Coast Guard Adm. Thomas Barrett said he supports the legislation.
Independent of U.S. Coast Guard monitoring of cruise ships, the bill would allow the state to establish a permitting process and regulations governing air emissions, solid waste and marine discharges, including civil and criminal penalties for non-compliance or false information.
Repeat violators could be banned from Alaska waters.
The rules would be negotiated with the industry before going out for public comment, according to officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Included would be some incentives, such as extended permits, for companies that go "beyond compliance" and provide environmental protection even greater than that required by law, they said. "Recognition means a lot to companies, particularly in a competitive industry," Commissioner Michele Brown said.
The bill also would establish the Alaska Commercial Passenger Vessel Coastal Protection Program, supported by industry fees. The fees, which would go into effect this summer, would collect about $700,000 a year from the industry - basically $1 per passenger per voyage.
Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, has a separate bill with Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, to require the industry to file complete reports on what they're emitting and discharging in Alaska.
With that kind of synergy, "This is just going to happen," Kerttula said.
A sense of inevitability also was voiced by Juneau-Douglas High School senior Adriana Rodriguez, part of an ocean science bowl team that won a top state award for a research paper on the cruise ship industry. Asked what she would say to industry leaders if they balked at supporting the bill, Rodriguez said: "You kind of have to. I mean, you're coming into our waters."
Halford was unavailable for comment. Sen. Alan Austerman, a Kodiak Republican who represents some Southeast communities that are affected by cruise ship traffic, had not seen Knowles' bill yet but said that in principle he could support permitting and regulation of the industry.
Environmentalists welcomed the new legislation.
"This certainly completes the package" with the Murkowski bill and voluntary monitoring programs through the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative, said Chip Thoma of Juneau, representing the Alaska Conservation Alliance.
Gershon Cohen of Haines, a longtime player on a variety of water quality issues, noted that new standards won't be in effect soon, however.
"It could take a couple of years to come up with regulations for this, and standards. Basically, what we have here is a promise to do the job," he said.
Early industry response to the bill was cautious. Knowles said he talked this morning with Dean Brown of Princess Cruises, chairman of an industry group, but Brown didn't express support or opposition.
"We're committed to work with the state," said John Hansen, president of the North West CruiseShip Association. "And certainly we continue to support the overall objectives. When it comes to the details of the bill, I can't say anything yet. ... I need to discuss that with all my members."
The association has a meeting March 21-22 and a more formal response will follow, Hansen said. Cruise company executives agreed in principle in November to greater state scrutiny and a new state fee, but it's unclear yet whether the details are problematic, he said.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.