Action needed to protect coastal waters

My turn

Posted: Sunday, May 20, 2001

Sen. Cowdery's idea to just allow the cruise industry to police itself is astonishing.

Four and a half million gallons of pollution - human waste and wastewater from kitchens, sinks and laundry. That's enough to fill the Juneau Augustus Brown swimming pool 22 times. And that's what will be dumped unregulated into Alaska's coastal waters EACH DAY the Alaska Legislature delays action on a cruise ship pollution bill.

That's why the Knowles administration, nearly every member of the Alaska House, the Coast Guard, environmental groups, local communities and Alaska Native organizations support prompt passage of legislation to protect Alaska's air and water from cruise ship pollution. Even the cruise ship industry says it supports the bill.

The bill would authorize independent state monitoring and testing of cruise ship wastewater discharges and air emissions, establish authority to set Alaska's own protective water standards, impose fees to cover the cost of enforcement, provide for civil and criminal penalties, and include incentives for surpassing standards.

With this bill, the cruise industry will join every other industry in this state in being subject to laws, made by Alaskans, tailored to the unique conditions of our state and the particular needs of industry.

Anchorage Sen. John Cowdery and a few other recalcitrant senators are dangling red herrings before Alaskans to muddy the need for this vital legislation. Such was the case with his Empire column (5/16). I appreciate the opportunity to respond to some of his misinformation.

Small Cruise Ship Operators Support the Legislation: Sen. Cowdery claims small cruise operators oppose the legislation. That's simply not true.

Cruise ships carrying fewer than 249 passengers have operating constraints that require special consideration. All the proposed cruise ship bills to date have provided for those constraints in one way or another.

In fact, the U.S. Cruise Ship Association's Randy Ray told Sen. Cowdery's committee his organization fully supports HB 260, together with some clarifying amendments that Sen. Cowdery refused to address. These small operators have consistently been advocates for environmentally safe operations and it's wrong to portray them as wanting to shirk environmental responsibility.

The Alaska Marine Highway System Complies With the Law: Alaska ferries, including the recently built Kennicott, are already equipped to meet the proposed standards. Ironically, the same clarifying amendments that Sen. Cowdery balked at would negate the financial impact on the state ferries that he says concerned him.

Head Tax Not Part of the Legislation: Sen. Cowdery cites his opposition to a head tax as another reason not to move HB 260. There is no head tax in HB 260 nor was there one in the governor's original legislation or that offered by Sen. Rick Halford or Rep. Beth Kerttula. Safeguarding Alaska's environment is far too important to be held hostage to a phantom fear.

Voluntary Compliance Not Good Enough: Sen. Cowdery would have Alaskans give up our state authority to safeguard our own water and air quality. Instead of passing our own laws that ensure protection, he'd rather us simply ignore the 4.5 million gallons of wastewater being discharged daily into our waters and the haze that clouds Juneau and other affected communities.

The recent federal legislation is a step in the right direction, but it does not regulate vessels carrying less than 500 passengers, does not establish graywater standards, does not establish the state's ability to monitor discharges, does not allow the state to set standards or punish violations, and does not include air emissions or solid waste.

Sen. Cowdery's idea to just allow the cruise industry to police itself is astonishing. The large cruise ship operators' long history of self-regulation demonstrates that "voluntary compliance" is grossly insufficient. In fact, two of the first ships to visit Alaska this season have already violated the new federal requirements Sen. Cowdery says are the solution, one vessel exceeding the sewage standard by 3,500 times.

The facts are simple. Large cruise ship operators have fouled Alaska's air and waters for years. Improvements are underway, but future environmental performance depends on how we act. Alaskans must take charge of protecting our own waters and resources.

We have laws regulating the oil, gas, mining and fisheries industries, and virtually every other industry in our state. We should expect no less of the cruise ship industry. It is time to pass HB 260 and focus our attention on properly and effectively managing the wastes from the cruise industry.

Michele Brown is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

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