Empire Editorial: New federal cruise ship bill goes to extremes

Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2004

Alaska has led the nation in getting the cruise ship industry to clean up its act. And we've done it without going to extremes, as a new federal proposal does.

The proposed bill would send cruise ships 12 miles offshore before releasing any of their sewage, dishwater or other wastewater. But with the narrow passages between Southeast's islands, ships would have to leave the Inside Passage to unload their wastewater. The measure was introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Rep. Sam Farr of California and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, all Democrats.

Unifying cruise-ship standards across the nation is not a bad idea, although this particular piece of legislation is. The big problem is that it ignores all the measures Alaska already has taken to preserve its sparkling waters.

There's a reason other states have looked to Alaska when crafting their own clean-water laws. This state is visited by roughly 32 large cruise ships a year, most of which ply Southeast waters. To meet Alaska's pollution requirements, 18 of those vessels have been fitted with what are called advanced wastewater treatment systems. These $2 million systems use reverse osmosis, ultra-filtration and high-tech measures that make cruise ship wastewater far cleaner than what the city of Juneau releases from its own wastewater treatment facility. State regulators consider what comes out of the city's treatment facility perfectly safe. And yet, wastewater from these ships has one-twentieth the fecal coliform you'd find coming out of the discharge pipes from the city treatment facility.

But what about the cruise ships that don't have the fancy new systems?

"The other 14 crossed their legs, held it and discharged it outside the waters of the Inside Passage," said Denise Koch, section manager of the state's cruise ship program.

Those 14 ships already leave the Inside Passage to dump their wastewater and they do so three miles offshore, where their waste is mixed with a tremendous volume of water. Plus, these ships are traveling at 10 knots to 20 knots so that the waste they do release is much less concentrated than if they were stationary.

This January, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation released a report that looked at whether large cruise ships were meeting state wastewater requirements. The report showed that the ships met the standards well and their wastewater poses no threat to marine life, according to Koch.

Perhaps sending cruise ships 12 miles offshore to dump wastewater would work in other coastal states where open waters are far more accessible. But what makes more sense is to go to a state - such as Alaska - that has held cruise ships to high standards, and model national legislation after a proven success. Cleaning up this nation's waters is vital to our coastlines, but this federal legislation is not the way to do it.

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