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Legislators came back for a special session on cruise ships this morning with hopes of passing an environmental protection bill by late Friday or Saturday.
But potential conflicts, including a passenger head tax favored by key senators and a new proposal for measuring discharge limits for wastewater, could extend the session or jeopardize passage.
The Senate has set up an expedited schedule for consideration of House Bill 260, which would authorize state oversight of cruise ship discharges, emissions and solid-waste handling. The bill passed the House 35-3 on May 1.
The Senate Transportation Committee was scheduled to take up the bill at 1 this afternoon, with a new version being offered by Chairman John Cowdery, an Anchorage Republican.
Cowdery, who blocked action during the regular legislative session that ended May 8, said this morning he intended to move the bill out by late afternoon so it could be considered by the Senate Resources Committee tonight.
During a short floor session, Senate Finance Co-Chairman Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, got a waiver of rules so that his committee could take up the bill without 24 hours' notice.
But while that offered the possibility of quick approval, Cowdery's proposed committee substitute for HB 260 created fresh controversy. He would allow cruise ships to meet an average standard for wastewater discharge, rather than an absolute standard that would have to be met every time.
That led Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula to call Cowdery's version of the bill "a big piece of fecal coliform."
Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, meeting with reporters, said: "We will not have a bill that compromises the integrity of the bill that currently has passed the House."
Knowles, who pushed the bill aggressively and called the special session when the Senate didn't act, did not say what changes to the bill would be unacceptable or what he would do if no bill passed.
But he broadened the discussion by calling for additional federal regulation, by congressional action if necessary, to prevent cruise ships from discharging untreated or inadequately treated wastewater in the ocean outside of Alaska waters. Several cruise ships are discharging outside and thus opting out of a voluntary sampling program to determine sewage content. Knowles said that while Alaska waters are his top concern, the intent of the pending legislation is not to shift a problem to a new location.
Federal law now requires a specific treatment standard for blackwater, or toilet waste, before discharge in Alaska waters, and the pending state bill would apply the same standard to graywater, or sink and laundry water, by 2003. Under amendments proposed by Cowdery, those standards would become averages in state law, and small commercial vessels would have more time to come into compliance.
Cowdery also would bring all state ferries under the toughest requirements, regardless of how many passengers they're carrying. "I think it's hypocritical if we didn't include the ferries in this," he said.
His committee substitute also would require the Department of Environmental Conservation to compile a report comparing cruise ship discharges with domestic sources of water pollution.
"He is, it seems to me, introducing elements that need not be introduced," said Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat. "It's a matter of getting these ancillary bright ideas and egos out of it."
The wild card remains a $50 passenger head tax favored by Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, and Rules Committee Chairwoman Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican. Cowdery said he would vote against his own committee substitute if the tax is added.
In the House, Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who co-authored HB 260, said he's against even taking a vote on the head tax.
"This is a water bill; it is not a tax bill," Mulder said. Any taxes should be considered in a regular session in the context of a long-range fiscal plan, he said. "I think the discussion will in fact happen one day."
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.