My turn: To mix or not to mix, that is the question

Posted: Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Last week, the Department of Environmental Conservation's new cruise ship permit hit the streets. John Binkley, the industry's full-time Alaska spokesman, has been busy complaining about the permit's burdensome requirements.

I, too, have issues with the permit. The monitoring schedule is inadequate; not sampling for some pollutants at all and sampling only once or twice in a whole season for others. The state ignored its own requirement to test discharges for overall toxicity.

But the main point of contention is that cruise lines are not allowed to have mixing zones - areas where Alaska's water quality standards for toxicity, copper, zinc, nickel and ammonia won't apply.

Binkley is correct about one thing: It's a stricter level of performance than required of other polluters. However, as Paul Harvey said, there's another side to the story: Cruise ships move and their mixing zones would move with them. Fish won't know when they are getting contaminated in a mixing zone, and neither will the fishermen that catch them. Furthermore, since the mixing zones of many ships would move and overlap, we wouldn't be able to monitor an individual discharger or a discreet discharge area and determine if or when there is an impact. For these reasons, I believe cruise ships deserve the higher bar.

The mixing zone "dilution-solution" was adopted into regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1983. The mother of all pollution loopholes was embraced by the states and major dischargers, 11 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act and two years before the main goal of the act came due:

"It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985." (33 U.S.C.A. 1251(a)(1))

Mixing zones "legalize" dumping pollutants into public waters at levels that exceed water quality standards, guaranteeing the zero-discharge goal will never be reached. Mixing zone supporters claim there's enough assimilative capacity in the ocean to absorb their waste. Didn't we hear the same argument about our atmosphere's ability to absorb carbon dioxide?

The biggest problem with authorizing mixing zones is the removal of any incentive for improving treatment technologies. If you can pollute for free, you won't pay someone to build a better treatment system. The technology that would bring the cruise ships into compliance with current law would also become available to other dischargers, making waters cleaner all over the state.

The cruise lines say meeting the water quality standards without a mixing zone is impossible. Remember in 2001 when they said there were no technologies for vessels that could remove sewage bacteria? They were so embarrassed by their poor performance and felony convictions they paid to have better systems designed and built. Thanks to public pressure, not corporate citizenship, most cruise ships coming to Alaska (and nowhere else) now have those improved systems.

Remember in 2006 when the cruise lines predicted the $50 head tax would cripple their industry, if not the entire Alaska tourism economy? Thanks to the common sense of Alaskans, the initiative passed despite their doom-and-gloom propaganda, and according to the McDowell Group, sailings, passenger numbers, and spending-passenger figures were all up in 2007.

Impacted communities all over the state are looking forward to receiving cruise ship tax revenues to offset the industry's effects on local infrastructure.

The cruise lines have known about the mixing zone prohibition for two years and done nothing to try and comply. DEC's permit gives them another two years of grace without penalties. They now predict they won't be able to meet the no-mixing zone rule. Given their current effort to solve the problem, it looks like one of their predictions may finally come true.

Here's my prediction: The cruise lines have no intention to try and meet the law. They will try to scuttle the law during the next legislative session when the two-year grace period for initiatives is over. It will be a shame if they finally win with the Legislature over the will of the voters.

Alaska is leading the nation by boldly striving to reach the fundamental goal of the Clean Water Act. Our fish are rooting for the home team.

• Gershon Cohen has a Doctorate of Environmental Policy and was co-sponsor of the Alaska Cruise Ship Law. He resides in Haines.

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