Cruise ship discharge bill approved

New waivers allow vessels to delay requirements set by voters in 2006

Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Legislature has given cruise ships a chance to delay water discharge requirements put in place three years ago by a citizen's initiative. Clean water advocates hope the opportunity is short-lived.

Waivers could be in place through 2015 unless technology is available for vessels to meet standards. A sponsor of the 2006 initiative, Gershon Cohen of Haines, said that could happen well before the new law allowing waivers expires.

"Nobody's saying you're going to get a pass until 2015," Cohen said.

Alaska voters in 2006 approved a cruise ship initiative fought by the industry that established a $50 passenger head tax and an "Ocean Ranger" program to monitor safety, environmental compliance and sanitation.

The measure also established wastewater dumping regulations that require cruise ships to meet state water quality standards. The measure applied to treatment of a ship's "gray water," from showers, sinks, washing machines and galleys, and "black water" from toilets.

Critics said the requirement was tougher than discharges from shore-based treatment facilities such as mines, municipal sewage plants and seafood processors, which meet standards after the discharge has become diluted.

Vessels have had particular difficulty in meeting the standard for ammonia and three metals: coppery, nickel and zinc.

Vessels operating in Alaska waters can avoid the regulations simply by moving three miles away from state coastline into federal waters. In some cases, because of islands, that means traveling 12 miles from the mainland. That means less time for tourists and crew members to spend money in ports.

House Bill 134, sponsored by Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, started out as a measure that would have allowed ships to dump treated water in mixing zones, diluting discharge before water quality measurements were made.

As originally written, vessels could have applied for waivers indefinitely until technology was available to meet the standards.

The final version of the bill, which has not yet reached the desk of Gov. Sarah Palin, takes it off the books in 2015. Cruise ships will still be required to meet the water standard at the point of discharge. Applications for new waivers could be denied if other vessels have demonstrated they can meet the standards, Cohen said.

More than 800 samples were taken last year from about 18 cruise ships, Cohen said.

"One-third of the time they were within the limits using their existing technology," he said. "That proves they are extremely close to meeting all the standards all the time."

If one company's vessels meet the standards, he said, others will be required to do at least as well.

Former state Sen. John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, said cruise lines would be happy to adopt affordable new technology to meet the standards if it were available.

"There's nothing dependable that gets us to those levels," he said. "Occasionally we hit them, but we're not sure why there are anomalies in the system."

Binkley said the new law will give regulators considering waivers some flexibility in deciding what is acceptable, depending on the receiving water, whether a vessel is moving and what kind of marine life is nearby.

He praised a provision of the bill that sets up a science panel to advise the department on new technology.

"You can't do it just when a salesman comes up," he said.

Lynn Kent, director of the Division of Water, said three-year waiver permits likely would be issued in 2010, with a new technology review conference scheduled for 2012. The practical effect is that tougher enforcement likely could not take place until new permits are considered in 2013.

It's not just new technology that affects discharges, she said. Solutions might be as simple as treating water taken on by vessels. Humans can handle more copper in drinking water than fish, she said.

The agency has required evaluation of products used on ships. Some companies are retrofitting vessels to remove pipe that adds metal to their wastewater.

"It's not always just treatment at the end," she said.

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