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Cruise ship discharge permit reasonable, fair

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2010

Our fantastic early-summer weather has been both inspiring and exhausting. The beauty of our natural environment surrounds and impels us to get outside and partake in the joys of nature.

I live downtown, and thus have the daily opportunity to share the beauties of my hometown and neighborhood with thousands of visitors each day. While they at times seem to swarm in the streets around me, I am grateful for their presence, as fewer of them are coming here this year than in years past.

Late last month, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation issued a final cruise ship wastewater permit that sets specific rules for cruise ship waste water discharges in state waters. The permit is reasonable and fair. Despite that fact, there was grumbling as soon as DEC issued the permit, which has been followed by more concrete negative responses from some Alaskans who don't feel like DEC is living up to its obligations.

In the interests of full disclosure, I served as legislative liaison at DEC five years ago, and a big part of my job was to ensure the Alaska Legislature passed a law to give Alaska "primacy," meaning the State took over permitting authority under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. NPDES is mandated by the Clean Water Act, and almost every state in the nation performs this task. The primacy bill passed when I was there, and the following year Alaska voters passed a cruise-ship initiative that, among its many disparate provisions, significantly increased standards for water discharged by large ships. The recently issued final permit implements these rigorous new rules.

In order to weigh the claims of critics of DEC's new permit and DEC's efforts to do its job, one needs to look at what the permit actually does, and compare that to what the law calls for it to do. The original voter-passed initiative called for the best available technology to be used by all cruise ships. The cruise industry was afraid this might constitute an impossible burden, and asked the Legislature last year to give them some time to figure out what really is the best available technology, including what was economically feasible to install, maintain, operate and repair.

Last session, Rep. John Harris of Valdez introduced a bill to allow for the, "most technologically and economically feasible" systems to be used, at least until a scientific advisory panel could look into the details of what works best, how much it costs, and how the best interests of Alaskans can ultimately be achieved. Harris's bill created an 11-member panel appointed by the DEC commissioner, and one of the current opponents of DEC's permit was appointed to, and then removed, from this panel. I can not help but ask if Gershon Cohen's decision to challenge the permit as contrary to law is not really just sour grapes at having been considered unfit for the scientific panel.

As a lifelong Alaskan, I certainly want our waters to be as clean as they can be - today, tomorrow and forever. While I appreciate the cruise industry's contributions to our economy, I would never countenance its getting away with preventable harm to our unique natural environment. Cruise lines are for-profit entities, and they need to make sure that no environmental costs to Alaskans are externalized from their business operations. If it will cost more for a seven-day cruise that doesn't harm Alaskan waters, then that ticket price must reflect the cost of preventing the harm.

Unfortunately, the arbitrary "best-available technology" standard imposed in the cruise-ship initiative is not economically rational. It would force ships to pump out water cleaner than that they take on-board from the municipal water systems in ports of call. And by forcing businesses constantly to have the best, it also might unreasonably force them to always have the newest system. It would be like having to retrofit the exhaust system on your car every time better technology was created and became commercially available.

Rep. Harris's bill passed both legislative bodies with little opposition. The law now clearly and unambiguously allows DEC to use a different, agreed-upon compromise standard for cruise-ship wastewater permits, but only for a brief time until more consideration can be given to ensure clean water without forcing impossible economic realities.

I suspect the challenges to DEC's permit will fail at the administrative and judicial levels. Ironically, by the time these meritless arguments against the permit have been finally heard, the scientific panel will have done its work and we'll be on to the next stage.

• Ben Brown is an attorney and life-long Alaskan living in Juneau.



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