My turn: DEC is cheapening definition of 'best technology available'

Posted: Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's cruise ship wastewater discharge permit violates the letter and spirit of Alaska law. I intend to ask an independent court to determine the permit's legality.

It was highly unusual - if not inappropriate - for DEC's Lynn Kent to air the department's opinion last week in the May 25 letter published in the Juneau Empire. The matter is in litigation and DEC will be the one deciding whether to grant me an impartial hearing on the facts.

Ben Brown noted in a May 30 Empire column his intimate role in DEC's successful effort to take over the Clean Water Act wastewater permit program. Though the goal is to ensure the use of best available technologies, he believes this requirement to be "arbitrary" and "not economically rational" for the cruise industry.

There is nothing arbitrary or irrational about expecting DEC to apply years of data taken directly from the industry when it clearly shows which systems work best. Mr. Brown's analogy to regulating car exhaust systems misses the point.

First, it's a matter of scale. Each cruise ship discharges millions of gallons of wastewater on every trip to Alaska. You cannot compare this to what you or I might "discharge" from a skiff while trolling for a king salmon. Second, the systems currently on different ships vary significantly in design and performance and are not necessarily the "best available technology." DEC is now arbitrarily saying that whatever technology a cruise ship currently has the best available, totally redefining the concept.

As to Mr. Brown's comments regarding the science panel, its job is to examine existing and upcoming technologies; not to protect the waters or fisheries of Alaska, or decide whether a particular level of treatment is sufficient or expeditious for the industry.

As to the comment about my being "unfit" for the science advisory panel, I was strongly encouraged by DEC to apply, was graciously accepted and then dismissed three weeks later following complaints from the cruise industry. DEC's liaison to the panel quit several days later.

Regardless, my action regarding this permit has nothing to do with "sour grapes" over my removal, although I'll admit I have serious concerns about whether DEC regulates the industry or vice versa. Is it a coincidence the head of the DEC cruise ship program resigned two weeks ago shortly after the discharge permit was released?

Finally, Mr. Brown revisits the over-worn position that the cruise industry shouldn't, as a matter of principle, have to do better than other dischargers. I believe they should, and the law requires they do the best job they can. Allowing cruise ships to discharge more pollution than necessary excuses everyone else from doing their best, too.

As a student of the Clean Water Act, surely Mr. Brown is aware of the Act's primary goal - Section 101(a) - of eliminating the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the U.S. by 1983. Given the attitude of DEC and others, it is no wonder we have failed to achieve that goal nearly 30 years past the law's deadline.

Industry representatives repeatedly have said that all of the ships would use better wastewater treatment equipment if it existed. It does exist, and a few cruise ships already do far better than others. This equipment is available, economical and offers superior performance, as documented in DEC's own records. Nevertheless, there have been no significant changes in equipment on the ships or other technological improvements undertaken by the industry since 2004.

The statutory "compromise" to which we all agreed in 2009 gave individual ships three more years to meet water quality standards at the point of discharge, while requiring the best technologies be used by those ships in the interim. If the cruise industry put half the effort into improving their performance that they put into changing our laws, this issue would already be resolved.

• Gershon Cohen co-sponsored the Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative.

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