The equivalent of Alaska's third largest city on any summer day can't be found on a map. That's because it's afloat.
More than 45,000 cruise ship passengers and crew sail Alaskan waters at a time, constituting our state's third largest city. During an entire summer, more than 1million visitors and crew cruise Alaska's pristine waters. They arrive on ships 10 stories high and several football fields long.
They're an important part of Alaska's booming tourism industry. Yet they also generate a lot of waste. Just one large cruise ship can discharge 350,000 gallons of wastewater and sewage daily. Until now, this flotilla of mostly foreign-flagged vessels has largely escaped regulation. The time is well overdue for Alaskans to require the cruise ship industry to meet responsible environmental standards in the same manner that Alaskans expect from other industries.
Last summer's wake-up call for action was shocking and deeply troubling. Serious pollution problems associated with the cruise ship industry came to light during federal investigations, which led to felony convictions for hazardous waste dumping. Testing conducted for the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative Working Group, convened by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, further documented serious and unanticipated pollution problems with cruise ship discharges.
None of the wastewater samples collected from cruise ships fully met standards imposed on sewage. Even more disturbing, over 70 percent of the "graywater" samples from sinks, showers and kitchens, exceeded standards for fecal coliform, an indicator of human waste. Fifteen percent of cruise ships' stacks spewed smoke in violation of state and federal clean air rules.
Alaskans rightfully expect all industries to operate in Alaska according to reasonable standards, which protect our air, land, and waters. Now, it's time to extend that expectation to the cruise ship industry.
Gov. Tony Knowles introduced legislation creating the Alaska Commercial Passenger Vessel Coastal Protection Program (HB 183 and SB 134). The bill takes four important steps by: 1) requiring cruise ships that ply Alaska's waters to comply with permits that regulate wastewater discharges, air emissions, and solid waste disposal; 2) providing for independent monitoring and research, including addressing sensitive marine areas; 3) creating incentives for innovative approaches to reducing waste; and 4) implementing a dollar-per-passenger fee to pay for this cruise ship oversight program.
For cruise ships and every other industry, it is ultimately the state's responsibility to protect Alaska's air and water. Recent federal legislation addressing some cruise ship wastewater and voluntary efforts on the part of some cruise lines are steps in the right direction.
But they do not provide the consistent, fair and responsible oversight of the industry Alaskans deserve. Alaskans can not and should not rely solely on the federal government to ensure our air and water are not being fouled.
So far, the cruise ship legislation has been met with deafening silence from the cruise industry and hostility from the legislative majority. In the House, the legislation was buried in four committees, more than any other bill this session. It has not emerged from even one committee. Despite promises last year to support improved state regulation, cruise ship company representatives are actively lobbying for a different bill which falls short of the comprehensive, independent oversight program needed to ensure the protection of Alaska's coastal resources.
Alaskans welcome the benefits of our growing tourism industry. But we also recognize our foremost responsibility to maintain the health of our oceans, air and coastal communities.
Treatment of the cruise ship industry in Alaska must be fair and consistent with the level of care we expect from other industries that depend on our natural resources. This legislation expands the state's safety net to address cruise ship pollution and puts Alaskans in charge of protecting Alaska's resources.
To do anything less to protect our oceans and watersheds would be irresponsible. Please tell your legislator to act on these important measures.
Michele Brown serves as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
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