The first major cruise ship to ply Alaska waters this season discharged waste with fecal coliform counts 3,500 times higher than the new federal standard, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The incident proves the need for state oversight of the industry, according to the Knowles administration and supporters of a cruise ship pollution bill scheduled for a May 21 special session of the Legislature.
On May 4, Norwegian Cruise Line reported to the Coast Guard that its vessel Norwegian Sky discharged treated blackwater, or toilet waste, for up to half an hour while traveling southbound between Juneau and Ketchikan.
The discharge, at 5:27 p.m. May 3, was legal in itself, as the ship was traveling more than a mile from shore and faster than 6 knots, the minimum distance and speed required under legislation passed by Congress in December.
But the apparent content of the water failed to meet the blackwater standard in that law, which limits fecal coliform colonies to 200 per 100 milliliters and total suspended solids to 150 milligrams per liter.
The Coast Guard boarded the Norwegian Sky in Ketchikan on May 4 and took wastewater samples. A laboratory analysis released Thursday showed a level of 700,000 fecal coliform and 27,000 total suspended solids.
Norwegian Cruise Line, in a news release following the incident, described the discharge as "accidental."
"NCL deeply regrets this incident," the news release said. "The company is cooperating fully with the USCG and is conducting its own investigation to determine the reasons for the incident."
Company spokeswoman Mirta Carreras said from Miami this morning that NCL does not have a public statement on the lab findings.
The Coast Guard is developing a civil case against the company, with potential penalties of $25,000 per day of violation.
State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Michele Brown said while it's good NCL followed federal law by reporting the incident, there would have been no other way of knowing about it.
"It certainly underscores the need for action this season," Brown said from Anchorage today. "The first ship showed us that voluntary compliance is not the way to go."
Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat who has pushed cruise ship legislation for two years, said the Norwegian Sky incident effectively ends the industry's proposal for an agreement with the state in lieu of law.
"I don't think there's any way they get to a compact after this," Kerttula said today.
Tom Dow, who has negotiated with Gov. Tony Knowles and lawmakers on behalf of the North West CruiseShip Association, declined to comment today.
Reporter Kathy Dye contributed to this article.