In a historic breakthrough Tuesday evening, the Alaska House approved what is believed to be the first regulation on the discharge of cruise ship graywater ever adopted anywhere.
"The public support, the public exposure of the issue really saved the day," Gov. Tony Knowles said today. "The people who didn't want a bill couldn't take the heat. ... I think yesterday was a threshold day."
The comprehensive measure on cruise ship marine discharges, solid waste and air emissions, unprecedented in the United States, was passed out of the House in a notably tension-free atmosphere, in sharp contrast to the heated negotiations reported in recent days. But it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
The House voted 35-3 for the hybrid bill, which includes a pollution monitoring, regulating and enforcement system and a $1-per-passenger fee introduced by Knowles; pollution reporting requirements sought by Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula; and the graywater standard that was added to Kerttula's bill in the House Transportation Committee.
It also had something for the cruise ship industry and Rep. Eldon Mulder, the Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee. Mulder, whose committee bill is now the "vehicle" for the proposed cruise ship law, prevailed in his attempt to stop the governor's push for issuing revocable permits. Instead, companies will register with the state and pledge to abide by environmental standards that are negotiated -- standards that in some cases could exceed new federal laws enacted in December.
The bill pre-empts the administration on graywater, which is collected from sinks, showers, laundries and galleys, by putting a standard into state law. By no later than Jan. 1, 2003, cruise ship graywater would have to meet the federal bacteria standard for treated sewage -- a limit of 200 fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters. Other sections of the House bill would be effective this summer.
Mulder and Kerttula, who rarely vote together on major issues, jointly offered the amendment containing the compromise.
"From the beginning, my intention was to try to focus on results," said Mulder, who was criticized last week for intervening in the issue late in the legislative session. "I think that focus has been maintained throughout this bill."
Mulder was lavish in his praise of everyone involved, including Knowles and Kerttula, calling Kerttula "the most adamant and ardent negotiator I've ever seen." She succeeded in restoring state oversight of air emissions and solid waste offloading, and in gaining authority for the Department of Environmental Conservation to write standards for the release of toxic pollutants.
"Today is a day Alaskans can be proud," said Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat.
It wasn't an assured outcome when the day started, however.
On Monday night, the industry, "out of the blue," proposed to limit the list of pollutants DEC could require tests for and to keep the agency from boarding the ships, Knowles said. "Our response to it was, 'No -- take it or leave it.' "
On Tuesday, "Hour by hour, it was up and down, negotiating back and forth," Mulder said. Key to achieving agreement, he said, was the recent addition of Ernesta Ballard of Ketchikan, a former federal regulator, to the cruise industry lobbying team.
When the final draft of the bill finally hit the House floor at about 8:45 p.m., there was little arguing left. Expedited procedural actions took only about 20 minutes.
Tom Dow of the North West CruiseShip Association said afterward that public opinion and media coverage were "extremely important" to the industry's decision to accept formal state oversight. He also cited the persistence of Knowles, who called major cruise company CEOs over the weekend to step up pressure.
"We have to give credit to the governor," said Dow. "He wasn't always kind to us, sometimes he was kind of tough on us, but it was very clear where he was going from the beginning on this."
"The industry took the right course," Knowles said. "Alaskans wouldn't tolerate it in their backyard. And I think the customers of the cruise ships who are coming here to see natural beauty and a pristine environment and the wildlife and all of that beauty -- to have been brought here by people that didn't have respect for protecting that environment would, I think, be a very bad business decision, and I think that had an effect."
One environmentalist, while impressed by the movement on the issue, wasn't entirely satisfied.
"We should have a sample taken from every pipe that leaves the ship," said Gershon Cohen, a water-quality advocate from Haines. "While what we're getting is much better than what we have, the fact is that everybody else who discharges takes daily readings and submits monthly reports. This industry will be taking two samples per summer."
The last round of negotiations, which started Sunday, largely used shuttle diplomacy. Administration officials met with industry representatives, who in turn reported to members of the House. The administration didn't negotiate directly with House Republicans, and neither negotiated with senators.
Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, just smiled when asked Tuesday evening what he planned to do with the bill. Halford has been an advocate of a $50 head tax for cruise ships, which would collect $35 million for the state. That passed the Senate 14-6 last year, and appears to have the potential for similar support now.
Knowles said he purposefully hasn't discussed head taxes with anyone, trying to keep the focus on environmental protection. House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, said Monday evening that a head tax "very likely" would kill the cruise ship bill when it comes back to the House for concurrence with Senate amendments.
The revised title of the Mulder bill, at about 400 words, is ultra-specific in a parliamentary maneuver to ward off the head tax. A two-thirds vote in the Senate, or 14 of 20 senators, would be required to change the title.
"We both think that a head tax is a reasonable thing to ask for in Alaska," Kerttula said of her discussions with Halford. But she didn't predict that senators would add a head tax, and didn't call upon them to do it.
Knowles said it's "fine with me" if legislators put on a head tax, adding: "However, I would note that I won't let it fall between the cracks if one body accepts it and the other body doesn't, therefore there's no bill. We're going to have a bill. I will insist that the Legislature pass an environmental protection bill for marine resources dealing with the cruise ship industry. We're going to have that. We will continue to work on that. We won't go home without it."
If the cruise ship bill doesn't make it out of the Legislature by the scheduled adjournment next Tuesday, Knowles acknowledged he has floated the idea of calling a special legislative session for July 4, at the height of the cruise ship season.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.
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