The cruise ship debate headed toward a climax late this morning as the Knowles administration continued negotiating with the industry and as Rep. Eldon Mulder said he would back off some of the elements of the bill he introduced last week.
Public involvement also was ratcheting up, as both the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and cruise industry critics prepared to greet the first big ship of the season, the Norwegian Sky, at the downtown dock early this afternoon.
Negotiations between the industry and the administration resumed on Sunday, following phone conversations by Gov. Tony Knowles with the chief executive officers of Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises and Carnival, which owns Holland America.
Knowles said the CEOs pledged cooperation with his attempt to put in place a system for monitoring of waste streams and state enforcement of environmental standards. "All three of them said they were committed to protecting the environment and to invest whatever is necessary on their vessels to meet the standards," he said.
Nevertheless, the on-again, off-again talks apparently broke down Monday night, according to Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat whose bill for pollution testing and reporting has bogged down in the House. Kerttula said this morning she was tired of waiting and would offer amendments to Mulder's bill, which was scheduled for House floor action today.
She said she didn't know if she would have any Republican support. "I can't read the numbers."
Later in the morning, Knowles said that he was in and out of a meeting with the cruise industry, but didn't want to comment on how much progress was being made.
Tom Dow, a Princess Cruises official who was working the Capitol today, said the industry wouldn't have any comment before this afternoon.
Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who is co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, said things are still in flux. But he said "it's time" to bring it to a close. The compromise, he said, appears to be that the state won't issue cruise ship permits, but cruise companies will have to pledge to abide by standards that the Department of Environmental Conservation negotiates with them.
"There's an excellent opportunity here to meet a middle ground where everybody is somewhat satisfied and somewhat frustrated," Mulder said in an interview. "I think the big winner in this thing is probably the governor. I certainly stepped further back than what I wanted to do. ... I may have a challenge convincing my caucus this is a good idea."
Michele Brown, commissioner of Environmental Conservation, said there's not much difference, practically. Under the permit system sought by Knowles, the state could administratively revoke a permit for a repeat violator, barring a company from state waters. That "death penalty" was opposed strenuously by Mulder.
But Brown said a permit revocation would end up in court, anyway. And under the emerging compromise, the state could go to court to get an injunction against a company that habitually polluted.
House Majority Leader Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican, said members of her caucus have been resistant to the Kerttula and Knowles legislation because they fear DEC would issue excessive regulations. James said perhaps Juneau should clean up its own boat harbor and wastewater treatment plant first.
As Mulder's bill was about to come up on the House floor at 11:30 a.m., Mulder and Kerttula approached House Speaker Brian Porter off-mike, and shortly afterward Porter called a recess of the House.
Porter, an Anchorage Republican, said Monday evening that he hoped to resolve the issue today.
Mulder unveiled his bill Thursday, after Kerttula's measure had gone through two committees and Knowles' bill had received no hearing. The Finance Committee, the only committee to which Mulder's bill was referred, took testimony and amendments Friday and passed the bill Saturday, apparently putting the bill on a fast track to passage by the full House. But plans to pass the bill Sunday were scrapped when industry representatives asked to resume meetings with Brown, following conversations between Knowles and the three CEOs Friday and Saturday.
Brown said the halting nature of the negotiations appeared to reflect an internal rift in the North West CruiseShip Association, the umbrella group representing the nine major cruise lines doing business in Alaska. Kerttula said individual cruise executives differ on their commitment to progress on environmental protection.
Citizen activists planned to get into the act today. Leaflets inviting cruise ship passengers to visit Mulder at the Capitol and oppose his bill were to be passed out today, said Robert Reges of Cruise Control. Meanwhile, Jamie Parsons, executive director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, invited business owners to welcome the Norwegian Sky.
About 680,000 tourists and about 300,000 crew members are scheduled to visit Juneau this summer.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.