Cruise ship bill worthy of support

My turn

Posted: Friday, June 01, 2001

Will the cruise ships just violate and pay over and over again? Not if they want to maintain a public reputation for good stewardship. Bad press is more damaging than fines and the state will have the means to publicly, and loudly, report each and every incident ... (and the Department of Environmental Conservation) would be foolish to abuse the industry because its wings would be clipped at the next legislative opportunity. This bill depends on support from the cruise industry. So does effective implementation of it.

The Juneau Resource Alliance adds its voice to those supporting HB 260, the cruise ship regulatory bill that will be the focus of the upcoming special session of the Alaska Legislature. The Alliance is usually interested in resource issues like mining and forestry, but we have to keep an eye on all economic activity, and cruise ship visitors are a vital part of Southeast Alaska's economy. By now, everyone should be aware that the cruise industry also supports this legislation. It also appears that various environmental organizations do as well. This is a rare confluence of agreement in today's fractious climate.

Why would the cruise industry support a state-level regulatory program? These are international companies, and their ships spend seven or eight months each year outside Alaska waters. We might expect them to resist localized regulatory programs, but it is clear today that the industry wants to lay pollution issues, especially waste water, to rest. There is now a federal program, but a higher level of credibility requires oversight by the state, and so the industry is willing to "go to the dentist" (a useful political term I just learned) to affirm their commitment to preserving the values they sell to their customers.

A little perspective on waste water in Southeast Alaska is interesting. There are about 75,000 of us who live here. Each of us uses about 125 gallons of water a day. All that water, over 9 million gallons a day, eventually reaches salt water after we flush, rinse, or drain it from our homes. How much of that is treated? And, how well is it treated? Answer: Not much, and not well. The larger cities provide only partial secondary treatment for waste water. All other communities, and individuals, provide primary treatment (which is basically liquefying the "lumps") or none at all.

Cruise ships use water at the rate of about 80 gallons per person per day. On a busy day in midsummer, there are 22 medium to large cruise ships in our waters. If all of them were full, there would be a total of 51,500 passengers and crew aboard and they will generate 4 million gallons of waste water on that day. On the whole, the cruise ship waste water is better treated prior to discharge than is the residents' water. More improvements are on the way and soon the whole fleet will meet much higher standards for discharge than we do.

Some of you may ask, if the cruise folks want this bill, what's the problem?

We're not sure if there is a problem. HB 260 is different from the original bill introduced by Gov. Knowles earlier this winter in one crucial aspect. Knowles' bill would have required a permit before a commercial passenger ship could enter Alaska's waters. Then, that permit could be unilaterally revoked if the state even suspected a violation. This is a guilty-until-proven-innocent type of system that no industry could risk.

None do now. Under HB 260, there will be state standards, inspections, monitoring and heavy financial penalties. The bill also provides a small tax to pay for the program. This is the standard regulatory approach.

Will the cruise ships just violate and pay over and over again? Not if they want to maintain a public reputation for good stewardship. Bad press is more damaging than fines and the state will have the means to publicly, and loudly, report each and every incident.

Another concern is fear that the state, through the Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), might run wild in exercising the new power conferred by HB 260. ADEC has certainly had the lead role in trying to create a state regulatory program and might relish the thought of this new power, and the funding to use it. However, the agency would be foolish to abuse the industry because its wings would be clipped at the next legislative opportunity. This bill depends on support from the cruise industry. So does effective implementation of it. The bill also depends on us.

Please call, write or e-mail your representatives in the Legislature and tell them you want HB 260. This is the only time in recent memory where the industry, the regulators, the environmental community and the public in general can all support a new regulatory program. The Legislature needs to know that this is so. Finally, there has been talk of using a regulatory program to also create a revenue program. For now, let's set the revenue issue aside and focus on the waste water issue where we can do a great deal of good. Who knows, if the cruise industry leads the way to cleaner waste water, we might want to try it for ourselves.

Walsh is a planning consultant in Juneau, and chair of the Juneau Resource Alliance, a branch of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce focused on resource use and development.



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