Backed by the cruise ship industry, the House Transportation Committee on Thursday passed a bill to limit the sewage content in the graywater discharges of large vessels by no later than 2003.
It was an abrupt reversal by the industry, which had opposed any state legislation, and by Committee Chairman Vic Kohring, a Wasilla Republican who had said he probably wouldn't even have a hearing on the bill offered by Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula.
In an attempt to fend off a more comprehensive bill introduced by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, as well as potential head-tax legislation, Kohring offered a committee substitute for Kerttula's bill that goes beyond the pollution testing and reporting requirements she proposed.
The bill now says that ships must limit the amount of human or animal waste in marine discharges. Discharges of graywater - water collected from sinks, showers, laundries and galleys - could contain no more than 200 fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters and no more than 150 milligrams of suspended solids per liter.
The standard, effective Jan. 1, 2003, is based upon the design specifications for marine sanitation devices used to treat on-board toilet waste, or blackwater. Tests done under a voluntary monitoring program in 2000 showed some graywater
discharges from cruise ships in the millions of fecal coliform colonies per milliliter. Cruise executives say that new graywater-treatment technologies will be installed on all large ships visiting Alaska by 2003, reducing bacteria to almost undetectable levels.
The revised bill also would repeat requirements regarding blackwater and graywater discharge from federal legislation offered by Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski last year. Any new federal graywater standards also would become effective as state standards, under Kohring's revision. The state could sue the industry for violations or false reports, with civil penalties of up to $100,000 for a first offense.
"If I had my druthers, it would be not to move legislation out of committee," Kohring said. But the bill is acceptable to the industry, and it's preferable to a $50 head tax that's being discussed, he said.
Tom Dow of Princess Cruises, who had initially opposed Kerttula's bill, acknowledged that the industry was relenting in the face of a strong stance by Knowles on passing state legislation this session.
"We've come to the conclusion that it makes sense to get some kind of legislation passed which brings some kind of closure to this issue and lays out with some certainty what the regulations will be and when they will take effect," Dow said.
The formal title of the bill was revised in a way that precludes amendments for a head tax or for a state permit program for cruise ships, said Robert Reges of Cruise Control, a Juneau group that supports industry mitigation of local impacts from tourism.
Reges said that taxes and permits will be addressed through a citizen ballot initiative if the Legislature fails to act. An application for an initiative petition for a $50 head tax, gambling taxes, apportioned corporate income taxes and state environmental permits was filed with the Division of Elections on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, and Sen. Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican and former president, said recently they still favor a head tax and some regulation of the industry.
Kerttula noted that the title of her bill can be changed again by another committee or the full House or Senate. "This isn't over 'til it's over," she said.
The revised bill drops Kerttula's proposed reporting requirements for air emissions, but she agreed that existing federal and state laws provide some enforcement authority already.
The House Resources Committee was scheduled to take up the bill this afternoon. Three members of the committee, including the two co-chairs, were among the Transportation Committee members who approved the bill Thursday.
"It's good it's moving out," said Bob King, spokesman for Knowles. "I don't think, though, this changes our position. Knowles is not going to back off an inch from the provisions he wants. ... We've learned over the past two years that self-regulation doesn't cut it."
The governor's bill would require cruise companies to get a state permit, pay a $1 per passenger fee to cover the costs of monitoring and enforcement, and start a negotiated rulemaking process on ship emissions, discharges and solid-waste handling. Ships could be banned from state waters for repeated violations of state laws and regulations.
Gershon Cohen, a water-quality activist from Haines, said the fecal coliform standard in the Kerttula bill isn't all that tough. For other Alaska industries, there's already a limit of 14 fecal coliform colonies per milliliter when shellfish could be affected, he said.
There's also the possibility that the bill would preclude any additional regulation by the Department of Environmental Conservation, notably testing for overall toxicity in marine discharges, Cohen said.
But he said there is nonetheless progress from a year ago, when the industry convinced the House to stop Senate-approved bills for pollution-reporting requirements and a head tax.
"This is definitely movement forward," Cohen said. "This is a remarkable victory for the public."
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.