Alaska editorial: Cruise compromise would allow time to meet standards

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2009

Backers of current cruise ship pollution standards have a compromise in the works that's fair, reasonable and should satisfy both the industry and its critics.

The compromise would keep the current standards in place and not allow mixing zones. That means that cruise waste would be measured for pollutants "at the point of discharge" - the end of the pipe - rather than allow for dilution a certain distance from the pipe.

The Alaska Cruise Association and other industry groups have argued that the end-of-pipe rules are unfair and too stringent for some ships, especially for copper and ammonia, and to a lesser extent for nickel and zinc. House Bill 134 would delete the stricter point-of-discharge standard.

Sponsors of the 2006 Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative, voted into law by Alaskans, argue that the cruise lines can meet the tougher standards with more effort - and that some ships already comply with the new permit standards.

Their proposed substitute for HB 134 takes another tack: Keep the strict standard, but give cruise lines more time to meet it - provided they show progress in doing so.

This compromise makes sense, especially in light of a state Department of Environmental Conservation report that found some ships already meet the stricter standards, others are working toward compliance and several have plans for pilot programs to measure up.

Further, the DEC report found that practical technologies do exist to better filter out ammonia, copper and other pollutants, but that cruise lines may need more time to adapt them to shipboard designs. The report also found that in some cases simple maintenance - for example, replacing corroded pipes - enabled ships to meet the higher standards.

One draft of the proposed substitute for HB 134 would provide renewable waivers of the existing "no mixing zone" law. For up to three years, ships could gain permits even if they didn't meet water quality standards at the end of the pipe - as long as they are working on an onshore waste disposal program or an on-board system that met the tougher standards. Otherwise ships could, as some do now, discharge outside of Alaska waters into federal waters, where standards are not so strict.

We've argued before not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case. If the only alternative is for ships to discharge even dirtier water outside of state jurisdiction, we'd cut the cruisers a break and let them discharge water that's over state limits for copper and ammonia, since that water is far cleaner than anything coming out of shore-based treatment.

But by DEC's own reckoning, that's not the only alternative. Better practices are available - and some in the industry already are working with them.

The cruise initiative set a high standard - a standard stricter than what Alaska demands of shore-based wastewater treatment. Given the sensitive marine passages sailed by cruise ships and the fact these standards are possible to meet with time, let's keep them.

BOTTOM LINE: Good compromise would keep unflinching wastewater standards, but give cruise lines more time to meet them.

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