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A day before the first major cruise ship of the season arrived in Juneau, two new barges for oil spill recovery were deployed - an event that accomplished the unlikely feat of uniting cruise ship officials, state and federal regulators, city leaders and tourism industry critics.
The barges were shown off during a ceremony Friday morning at the cruise ship dock downtown before being towed to Glacier Bay. They are the first of four pairs being deployed in Southeast this summer by the North West CruiseShip Association.
They were available for public viewing just 24 hours before Saturday's tie-up of Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam, a 1,214-passenger vessel whose arrival officially launched the tourism season.
Designed and constructed at the association's expense, each barge has the capacity to recover 249 barrels of oil, or more than 10,000 gallons. One pair each will be deployed in Glacier Bay, Juneau, Haines and Ketchikan.
The cruise ship association, representing nine companies, has contracted for management of the equipment by the Southeast Alaska Petroleum Resource Organization (SEAPRO), a cooperative including 38 companies, agencies and organizations. The association also has an agreement with Southeast Stevedoring to provide tug services should there be a spill by any vessel.
And the cruise lines, which have spent $1.3 million on the barges, also will pay an estimated $130,000 a year in maintenance, insurance and other operating costs.
U.S. Coast Guard Commander Rob Lorigan, the agency's port captain, said that the barges significantly improve local preparedness for a spill.
``I applaud the northwest cruise agency and all the member companies,'' Lorigan said. ``These barges don't just come out of a catalogue. . . .
``Quite frankly, it's the right thing to do. I'm tickled pink.''
SEAPRO General Manager David Owings said that along with the coop's existing spill recovery capacity, the new barges ensure that there could be prompt clean-up of a cruise ship spill.
The oil spill response program was initiated by the cruise ship association late last year, before the state settlement that committed Royal Carribean to such measures. Royal Carribean agreed to pay $2.1 million for spill response plans, part of a compensation package negotiated because of the cruise line's admitted past pollution of Gastineau Channel and Lynn Canal.
Robert Reges, co-founder of Cruise Control, a new group that seeks to manage the impacts of industrial scale tourism, showed up with face-to-face compliments for John Hansen, president of the cruise ship association - not an everyday occurrence, as divisions over the visitor industry intensify.
``I think it is important that those of us who are indeed industry critics also acknowledge when industry gets it right,'' Reges said in an interview, after thanking Hansen for the barges.
While some say the cruise association could do more, Reges said, ``It's a heck of a good step.''
Reges said he views the capital investment as more than a cosmetic, P.R.-related move by the cruise association.
And Hansen said that, indeed, association members have altruistic motives.
``Our commitment is to keep this state as beautiful as it is,'' he said.
But Kurt Fredriksson, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said that the event Friday was ``bittersweet.''
Fredriksson said the eight new spill-response barges unquestionably will provide added protection for the environment. ``This is a win for all of us - the cruise industry, the department and the state of Alaska.''
At the same time, he said he had been disappointed by cruise association lobbying against an oil-spill response bill offered by Senate President Drue Pearce, which passed only after being ``significantly watered down.''
``I challenge the cruise ship industry to go beyond compliance when protecting our environment,'' Fredriksson said. In legislative testimony, ``the comments weren't as positive, the commitments weren't as strong'' as they were Friday, he said in an interview.
Hansen said the problem with Pearce's bill is that it inadvertently would have forced cruise lines to buy more insurance, even though they already have $1 billion in coverage for a spill. He expressed his willingness to work toward a solution through a task force established by the legislation. ``Right from the start, we've said we support the objectives of the bill.''
Hansen said association members know they're being watched closely as the major cruise ship season gets under way in Juneau.
``Our members are conscious of the scrutiny,'' he said. ``Our members don't have any problem with that.''