State department plans to phase in ocean ranger program

Monitoring most likely won't begin until end of cruise ship season

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ocean rangers probably won't be on board cruise ships sailing through Alaska waters until the end of this year's tourist season.

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The state Department of Environmental Conservation is still working on a phase-in plan for the beleaguered environmental monitoring program, which voters approved last August but lawmakers balked at fully funding during the legislative session.

The intent of the program is to place licensed independent observers on board the large ships, largely to monitor wastewater discharges as they travel through state waters.

The ballot initiative designated $4 of a $50 head tax - or about $4 million - to pay for the ocean rangers but the Legislature only approved spending $1.2 million on the program.

DEC environmental program manager Sharmon Stambaugh said the state is still working out the details with contractor, Oasis Environmental Inc.

"It was such a dramatic change from the way DEC oversees the cruise industry in the state that we had to rely on a lot of contractors. We didn't have enough staff to pull it together without phasing it in," Stambaugh said.

The department contracted with Oasis for $128,520 to help develop the program. That included putting observers on board for at least one leg of each of the large cruise ships' sailings to make recommendations.

Stambaugh said that phase of the program is just about complete.

"The next phase will probably be limited deployment at the end of this year, if we can even get someone for a partial season," she said.

She said the state hopes to hire about 10 people this year. They are required under the new law to be marine engineers licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Some lawmakers last session expressed concerns that the state would have trouble finding qualified engineers willing to sign onto a seasonal job. But Stambaugh said the position could be "an exciting job for the right kind of person."

Engineers from the state ferry system or other maritime organizations and people newly graduated from maritime academies with some seatime already under their belt could find the part time position appealing, she said.

This year, at least, plans are for the ocean rangers to board the ships in Ketchikan and disembark at a northern port. But, in future years, the state may have some board with the marine pilots as the ships are entering Alaska waters. Stambaugh said that option would require more planning because of the cost and risk involved as well as the added stress on the marine pilot program.

The state also is hampered in ramping up this season because it has not yet reserved berths for the rangers, a need that also will drive up the cost by about $2,100 per voyage, Stambaugh said.

John Hanson, executive director of the Northwest Cruise Ship Association, said cruise lines are reserving judgment on the program until they see the final arrangements, but he believes the observers hired by Oasis got an eyeful during their initial voyage.

"It was important for the observers to see first hand the amount of documentation that occurs, the audits, the role of the officers on board and the oversight that exists on board by the Coast Guard, health agencies and so on so. It was important for them to see how much already goes on," Hanson said.

The DEC will hold a public forum in Juneau tonight to discuss the ocean ranger program and other ballot initiative requirements.



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