Water quality specialist to challenge new wastewater rules

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2010

The cruise industry is pleased with the state's new wastewater discharge rules but a leading environmentalist has already promised a lawsuit.

Under rules released Thursday by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, cruise ships can meet different limits for five types of treatment systems currently on the ships.

Gershon Cohen said the rules violate last year's law that requires the industry use the best available and economically feasible technology to treat water before it's discharged overboard.

The state is allowing cruise lines to do business as usual, Cohen said.

"The standards need to go to the best available technology, not what they can do with what's on their ships," he said. "It's clearly violating state law."

Cohen said he would file a request for an administrative review early next week, the first step in a legal challenge he plans to file under the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters, a project of the Earth Island Institute.

Alaska Cruise Association President John Binkley said the industry is pleased with the new rules, which are enforced through the issuance of a general permit by DEC. A draft permit was released earlier this year.

"The permit is definitely an improvement over the draft, and we appreciate the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation giving serious consideration to the concerns that were raised during the public comment period," Binkley said.

The industry submitted extensive comments, saying they could not comply and threatening the loss of business if standards were not relaxed. Some cruise lines considered itinerary changes that would take them outside state waters to discharge wastewater, reducing the amount of time spent in ports, Binkley said.

Binkley declined to comment on a potential challenge to the new rules.

The new permit also relaxes discharge limits for ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc compared to the draft. The ships have had a hard time meeting limits for those pollutants.

Cruise Ship Program Manager Denise Koch said the standards are achievable for cruise lines while also protecting the environment.

But Cohen, who wrote the environmental regulations as a co-author of the cruise ship initiative approved by voters in 2006, said cruise lines have done nothing to comply and continue to be let off the hook.

"They have spent all their time fighting this politically instead of doing what they need to do to improve their ships," Cohen said.

He further said the state is "playing politics" by releasing the permit rules less than a week before the cruise ship season begins.

"They are adding pressure on the system to function," he said.

The first ship is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday, May 4, at 8 a.m.

Koch said the state is ready to issue permits in a timely manner.

House Bill 134, passed in April 2009, required DEC to write the new permit, gave more time for ships to comply and created a science panel to study wastewater technology that might best suit industry operations.

Cohen had been appointed to the panel but was removed in January by DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig after Binkley expressed concern about Cohen as a choice. Six Democratic Legislators complained in a letter to the administration that the cruise industry had too much influence but their concerns were brushed off.

The industry won support for a tax cut during the Legislative session that ended April 18, agreeing to drop a lawsuit over the state's passenger head tax in exchange for the lower tax rate.

Lawmakers had asked for promises to bring more ships to the state but Binkley told them additional problems with Alaska's cost structure still had to be addressed. Cruise lines say Alaska's regulations, along with a slew of high fees and taxes, are hurting their profit margins here.

Those costs conspired with the recession to result in 142,000 fewer passengers - about a 14 percent reduction from 2008 - visiting Juneau this summer. Reductions will be worse elsewhere in the state.

Three cruise lines are expected to bring new business to Alaska in 2011. The latest announced its plans on Friday.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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