A far-reaching federal cruise ship pollution bill introduced in Congress last week effectively would ban all wastewater dumping in the narrow channels of Alaska's Inside Passage.
The bill sets shore-distance requirements for dumping and establishes observer programs and a system awarding damages to whistleblowers.
Representatives of the cruise ship industry said they already are adhering to strict environmental regulations established in 2001.
"If you recall, in 2001 Sen. (Frank) Murkowski passed legislation in the U.S. Congress that essentially mirrors the Alaska state law," said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines. "We worked to ensure that the legislation was rational and doable."
The proposal would require cruise ships to travel at least 12 miles from the U.S. coastline before discharging sewage, bilge water and graywater, which originates from sinks, showers and laundry machines. That's wider than any spot between Southeast Alaska's islands and mainland.
The proposal was introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Reps. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
Although the bill does grandfather some cruise ship regulations under Alaska law, vessels in the state would have to comply with the 12-mile limit.
"Even the ships with advanced wastewater systems will no longer be able to discharge in Alaska waters," said Gershon Cohen, a water-quality activist in Haines who helped draft the bill.
Under state law, cruise ships in Alaska now can discharge three miles away from shore.
The proposed bill also would establish effluent limits for treated sewage and graywater beyond the 12-mile limit. Ships traveling in Alaska would not be subject to minimum effluent limits, set by the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency, for three years after passage of the bill.
Cohen said the proposal establishes an observer program in which two certified marine engineers on each ship would review wastewater discharges. Ships also would have to be equipped with electronic devices that would report when and where discharges take place.
Citizens reporting illegal dumping also would be eligible for receiving half the damages from lawsuits.
"It's an incentive to the public to watchdog the industry," Cohen said.
The bill also would establish a cruise vessel pollution-control fund, imposing a fee of up to $10 per passenger to pay for the program.
Tom Dow, vice president of public affairs for Carnival Corp., said about 13 of the 15 ships his company represents in Alaska have advanced treatment systems.
"They're kind of operating at a state-of-the-art level right now," Dow said.
He said there is an ongoing review of cruise ship pollution by the federal government.
"The EPA is now undertaking a very extensive evaluation of this program for permanent regulations," he said.
But Kira Schmidt, a campaign manager for a national environmental group, the Bluewater Network, said the EPA has been working on the assessment for two years.
Schmidt said Bluewater helped draft key components of the bill, but has been working since 1999 to strengthen regulations on cruise ship dumping.
That year the group drafted a regulatory petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review regulations written in 1976 dealing with cruise ship wastewater discharges.
"There is an exemption in the Clean Water Act for discharges of sewage and graywater for cruise ships," Schmidt said.
She said the EPA held a series of public meetings in 2001 in Juneau, Los Angeles and Miami and are writing a comprehensive assessment report.
"This bill will finally stop cruise lines from flushing sewage and dirty water into our coastal waters," Schmidt said. "This bill provides a simple solution to a very messy problem."
Both Crye and Dow said the statement is inaccurate.
"I would say that obviously (Schmidt) is either misinformed about what the members of the International Council of Cruise Lines are doing or is intentionally ignorant of what the members are doing," Crye said.
He said the statement and provisions in the bill are not backed by sound science, adding that the cruise ship industry relies on the environmental health of the oceans.
"We are invested in the oceans," Crye said. "Tell us what the impacts are and tell us what is the right thing to do and we'll do it."
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.