Stubborn facts about the cruise ship bill

My turn

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2001

The Legislature considered several bills for environmental regulations on cruise ships during this past session. House Bill 260 was passed by the House on May 1. It was referred to my Senate Transportation Committee. After posting the required 24-hour notice, I conducted a hearing on May 6.

The large cruise lines expressed strong support for HB 260. However the smaller cruise ship owners testified that HB 260 would put 85 percent of them out of business in Alaska. With that in mind I asked the large cruise ship operators to pledge to enter into a legally binding agreement with the state of Alaska that would include all the environmental restrictions, monitoring and analysis, as well as the fee payments to cover the costs. They agreed. The finance committee approved legislation that would allow DEC to collect those fees.

I, as well as all the cruise lines, both large and small, were opposed to adding a head tax to the environmental provisions of the bill. There was testimony that raised legal issues about federal maritime laws regarding state head taxes vs. the federal tonnage clause, plus the unknown economic consequences of either. So the position of the large cruise operators is clear. They will sign a legally binding compact, or memorandum of understanding, with the state. This MOU would include the same restrictions and also pay the same fees.

That leaves the smaller operators with a problem. I received 12 amendments just prior to the hearing from DEC and the smaller operators that were in conflict with each other. DEC supported these even with those conflicts. The small ship operators would not be able to meet the double standards and timelines set out for larger ships. I believe our state constitution is very plain on the issue of equality. This area did not meet that standard. Smaller port communities depend on passenger traffic from small vessels, and the impact of unrealistic regulations would be devastating to them. The committee wanted to evaluate this before acting. Those differences need to be worked on. HB 260 doesn't treat all the players equally, as our constitution requires. HB 260 is not the only proposal for regulating cruise ship discharges.

Three other bills were introduced in Alaska. For the past two years the state, the EPA, the Coast Guard, the industry and citizens groups have developed a program to monitor and evaluate waste water discharges and air emissions.

Sen. Murkowski sponsored legislation that passed last year which seems to cover all the above mentioned issues. This will restrict wastewater discharges, require monitoring and stiff penalties for non-compliance. The Coast Guard is responsible for enforcement. The Murkowski cruise ship discharge legislation is working. One ship self-reported a prohibited discharge on May 3, reported to Coast Guard on May 4. Quick action was taken on May 5 and a citation was issued as well as a stiff penalty being assessed. The cruise lines have now purchased and delivered four sets of special barges that are equipped to respond to spills.

I happen to believe that the Coast Guard is the best enforcer of marine vessel regulations. They already inspect each cruise ship several times a season. They already have jurisdiction over safety and environmental matters. There is nothing broken in the system.

Meanwhile, testimony before the Senate Transportation Committee raised new concerns. First, they testified that our ferries would meet the new proposed standards. However, at a later hearing while being pressed under very direct questioning, the administration changed their minds on it and it seems that our own Alaska state ferries do not come close to meeting the new proposed standards. They would need to replace their wastewater treating systems to comply with the new standards. The costs of this have not been fully determined but the figure they gave me two hours after the committee meeting was estimated to be at least $7.5 million on just five of our fleet of ferries.

I find it ironic that the Knowles administration recently spent $80 million (not including a $50 million cost overrun claim) on the new Kennicott ferry that did not even have a modern waste water disposal system to meet the proposed standard in HB 260.

At least we know for certain that the large cruise ship operators plan to spend about $2 million for each vessel in the next two years. That's why the standards for treated graywater do not come into effect until 2003.

Under the Murkowski bill, ships treat sewage to meet federal standards if they wish to discharge anywhere in the Inside Passage. If HB 260 had passed, the same standard of treatment would apply in both state and federal law. Today, this standard applies to Norwegian Cruise Lines.

They promptly reported to the Coast Guard that they may have violated the standard. The Coast Guard responded. The system is working. This is not a critical problem.

The Knowles administration is carefully putting their own spin on this , but FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS and these are the facts.

As for the issue of a special session, the governor was fully aware that my wife Juanita has to undergo open heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. It is important that I be at her side because, after all, she's been by my side for over 50 years.

John J. Cowdery chairs the Alaska Senate Transportation Committee.

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