Cruise ship spill bill in trouble

Measure would require large vessels to have cleanup plans

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2000

A bill that would make cruise ships and other large vessels prepare to mop up possible fuel spills nearly ran aground last week.

But its powerful sponsor may have refloated the legislation.

Senate President Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican, is the main backer of Senate Bill 273, which requires ships of 400 gross tons or larger to have oil spill prevention and cleanup plans. The provisions also apply to the Alaska Railroad.

``We have a hole in the state's oil spill prevention and response net,'' state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Michele Brown said.

While tankers that carry oil as cargo are required to have spill prevention and cleanup plans under state law, those that carry large amounts of fuel to power their own operations are not, said Larry Dietrick of DEC's spill prevention and response division.

That includes cruise ships and large at-sea fish processors and trawlers, he said. It would not affect smaller-scale fishermen, such as seiners, trollers and gillnetters.

From 1995 to 1999 those not covered by current law had 10 times more spills and spilled 50 times more fuel than those industries that are covered, Dietrick said. He said about 400 vessels, at least the size of a state ferry, could be affected.

Pearce's measure passed the Senate, but ran into trouble in the House Resources Committee last week. Rep. Ramona Barnes, an Anchorage Republican, questioned whether it would place too great a financial burden on an industry that she said poses a relatively small risk to the environment when compared to oil tankers.

``Most of the things covered under this legislation are small potatoes,'' Barnes said.

Joe Kyle, executive director of the Alaska Steamship Association, whose members include the North West CruiseShip Association, said the group opposes the bill. The legislation leaves too many details to be decided by DEC regulations and its costs to the industry are not clear, he said.

The bill moved out of Resources on Friday, but its next stop is the World Trade and State and Federal Relations Committee, which Barnes heads.

Barnes said Saturday morning she hasn't decided whether to hold a hearing on the measure. Because the Legislature hopes to adjourn perhaps as early as this week, there is little time for a bill to move through the committee process, so a delay in hearing it could be fatal. Legislation that isn't passed by the time the Legislature adjourns dies.

Supporters of the legislation, however, are trying another route to turn it into law.

When Pearce's bill stalled out, Anchorage Republican Rep. Andrew Halcro agreed to hear a similar bill, House Bill 377, in the House Transportation Committee that he chairs.

That measure was proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat. It was not referred to Barnes' World Trade committee. It still needs to move through the Resources, Judiciary and Finance committees, but it zipped out of Halcro's Transportation committee with no debate Saturday.

``This is a good piece of legislation,'' Halcro said, that has ``fallen victim to some petty politics.''

DEC Commissioner Brown acknowledged there are many issues to be resolved on how the bill will work.

The issue of exactly what companies need to do to comply will be resolved through a process called negotiated rule-making with DEC.

Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican, was concerned that leaves too much unsettled. ``It's a little bit like putting in a law and saying `trust me,''' Hudson said.

Brown said the process will be collaborative. Those affected will participate in writing the regulations, they will then go out for public comment, and the agency will have to make a report to the Legislature on those regulations.

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