More than half of the cruise ships traveling in Southeast this summer are opting out of a voluntary and soon-to-be mandatory wastewater sampling program and are dumping sink water and treated sewage outside of Alaska waters, federal officials said.
Some cruise lines say the change in sampling and dumping plans was needed to allow ships to upgrade their equipment so they could comply with a new federal law regulating cruise ship wastewater. But it has some industry watchdogs and agencies concerned.
"I agree it would be nice if they would continue with the program, but I understand their reasons," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Spencer Wood told the Anchorage Daily News.
Last year, the state began a voluntary wastewater testing program as part of the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative, a state, industry and community program aimed at improving the industry's impacts on the region's air and water. The initiative was launched after several cruise companies were convicted of illegally polluting the Inside Passage.
The Coast Guard is taking samples from some ships under the voluntary plan until the federal regulations go into effect within a month, Wood said. Once that happens, ships that discharge in state waters must comply with a federally mandated sampling program, he said.
But if they travel into open ocean outside the Alexander Archipelago to dump waste, the ships are beyond the jurisdiction of the new federal law, championed by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, Wood said.
"The federal regulations are clear that if they don't discharge less than three miles from shore, they don't have to be sampled," Wood said.
Taking waste out that far also moves ships out of reach of proposed state cruise ship legislation to be considered when lawmakers meet in special session Thursday, said Michele Brown, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The cruise industry agreed to comply with the sampling program last year, but as of last month, at least nine of the 22 large cruise ships that ply Alaska waters had told the Coast Guard that they will not participate this year in the testing program for graywater, the waste that flows down shower and sink drains and from laundries, according to an agency spreadsheet.
At least 14 of the 22 ships will not be having their blackwater, or sewage, tested, according to the chart.
Al Parrish, vice president for government and community relations at Holland America Westours, said with the exception of the company's most technically advanced ship, the Statendam, Holland ships will be discharging their untreated graywater and treated sewage three miles off the outside shore instead of being tested.
"We don't want to be in any position where we have any doubt that we can meet the new federal standards," Parrish said. "Right now, we can't hit it 100 percent of the time. If we are not able to hit the standard in the legislation, we are not going to discharge inside the Alexander Archipelago."
The company had to alter the ships' plumbing to increase holding capacity, he said. Once the treatment equipment on each ship is up to speed, they will resume their normal routes, rejoin the sampling program and safely discharge in the Inside Passage, he said.
Nancy Wheatley, senior vice president of Safety and Environment for Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., said the company's reasons and plans are different.
"Our corporate policy is to discharge outside 12 nautical miles from shore," Wheatley said. "Our policy is based on environmental protection. It is better to discharge in deep water, farther from shore, because it's more quickly mixed and absorbed by the environment."
Except for two ships, all Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises ships will dump untreated graywater and treated sewage in the ocean for the foreseeable future, she said.
The company has backed out of the sampling program for logistical reasons, she said. Samples must be taken within certain parameters and must reach a laboratory quickly to be accurate, she said. Taking samples when the ships are discharging out at sea causes problems with the holding times of the samples, she said, which could skew the results.
Plus, she said, Royal Caribbean is having trouble getting the people who must take the samples on and off the ship. "We don't have extra cabins," she said.
Gershon Cohen, a clean-water activist from Haines, said new dumping routes may just move the pollution problems to a new place. The wastewater laws are intended to force compliance, he said, not push ships to dump in different places.
Commissioner Brown said the department is working with cruise lines on possible ways to continue sampling without fear of violations. But generally, the change is a "transition issue" that will likely be resolved as more ships upgrade their equipment.
"If there remains a pattern of dumping outside state waters, we're going to have to look at what's flushing back in," she said.