Some suggest we ... settle for voluntary compliance, or just let the federal government look out for our interests. This is unacceptable.
The Alaska Legislature convenes in a special session Thursday for one purpose - to require the $11 billion-a-year international cruise ship industry to meet the same standards of clean water and air we require of every other industry operating in our state.
On any average summer day, the more than 45,000 cruise ship passengers and crew who sail Alaskan waters constitute our state's third largest city. While they are an important part of Alaska's booming tourism industry, they also generate a lot of waste.
Every day's delay in legislative action means up to 4.5 million gallons of pollution - human waste and wastewater from kitchens, sinks, and laundries - are dumped unregulated into Alaska's coastal waters.
That why, when the Senate failed to act on a cruise ship pollution bill (House Bill 260) last month, I called legislators back into special session.
Two years in the making, the bill authorizes independent state monitoring, testing and inspection of cruise ship wastewater discharges and air emissions; gives the state authority to set its own clean water standards; requires the industry to pay the cost of enforcement; and provides for civil and criminal penalties.
The legislation is widely supported - by the Coast Guard, environmental and fishing groups, local communities and Alaska Native organizations. Thanks to the state House for passing it 35-3. The cruise ship industry, both large and small ships, also says it supports the bill.
Despite this overwhelming support, the Senate bottled up the bill during the regular legislative session by resorting to parliamentary maneuvers. Now, some would like to divert attention from what the public demands with irrelevant issues.
Some suggest we give up state authority to safeguard our air and water quality and settle for voluntary compliance, or just let the federal government look out for our interests. This is unacceptable.
Alaska is a state of laws; we don't rely on voluntary compliance by the oil and gas, mining or fishing industries. A newly passed federal law does not regulate ships with fewer than 500 passengers, nor address solid waste or air quality. It specifically gives Alaska the authority to set and enforce our own standards.
The history of cruise ship self-regulation is further proof of the need for an anti-pollution law. Two of the first two cruise ships of the season illegally dumped pollution, one discharging treated sewage 3,500 times in excess of standards allowed under the proposed law.
This follows testing last summer which showed that 98 percent of sewage samples and 70 percent of the "graywater" from cruise ship sinks, showers and kitchens exceeded standards for fecal coliform bacteria, an indicator of human waste. Fifteen percent of cruise ships spewed smoke in violation of state clean air rule, which contributes to the haze that plagues several coastal communities each summer.
Another distraction that could kill the bill is adding a head tax. Asking the cruise ship industry to pay for the services it uses in our state is a legitimate issue and should be considered as part of an overall long-term fiscal plan.
But the anti-pollution bill should be considered on its own merits. Safeguarding our environment is too important to be held hostage to a head tax.
Across the nation and world, Alaska's efforts to protect our clean air and water are being watched as a model. Let's put Alaskans in charge of protecting Alaska's resources.
Urge your legislators to act on June 7 to require the cruise ship industry to adhere to the same standards we rightfully expect of every other industry operating in our state.