UPDATED 11:00 A.M. SATURDAY, JUNE 9
The Alaska Legislature has approved a landmark bill providing state oversight of cruise ship pollution.
The House of Representatives voted 29-5 in favor of the bill at about 10:35 a.m. today, and the Senate followed with a 13-6 vote about seven minutes later, sending the bill to Gov. Tony Knowles for his signature.
The bill, with final touches from a House-Senate conference committee, allows the Department of Environmental Conservation to negotiate with the cruise industry on regulations for wastewater discharges, air emissions and solid-waste handling, thus reinforcing and surpassing federal environmental protections.
While there was sharp debate about whether the bill went far enough or too far, and a close vote in the Senate defeating a $10 head tax, the legislation is still groundbreaking. It contains the first regulation on graywater content ever passed by any government.
Knowles called a special session for Thursday to complete action on the bill, which passed the House 35-3 on May 1. The Senate adjourned May 8 without moving the bill out of its first committee.
Majority Republicans said the Democratic governor's special session was political because nothing will be achieved before next year that couldn't have been, anyway.
The North West CruiseShip Association had agreed to abide by the provisions of the bill, and receipt authority was given to DEC to collect the $1 per passenger fee in the bill targeted for monitoring, sampling and inspection programs. The regulations that DEC will negotiate won't be done before this cruise season is over.
"But the fact is, the momentum was there," acknowledged Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican.
Three instances of wastewater discharges in violation of federal law, all since the May 8 adjournment, helped sustain the drive for passing the bill.
DEC Commissioner Michele Brown has said the state can use the authority to begin collecting information on pollutants. But Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said the memorandum of understanding offered by the cruise industry would have allowed for the collection of that information.
However grudgingly, Republicans moved the bill rapidly through their committee structure and to the floor. Along the way, they made changes delaying the new wastewater discharge requirements for small cruise ships and state ferries, and shored up the bill to ensure DEC access to all holding tanks.
Concern had been raised about whether ballast water was being mixed with sewage as several ships are holding their waste for discharge outside of Alaska waters, rather than risk exceeding the new federal limit on fecal coliform colonies in blackwater. A final amendment clarified that the state can inspect ballast tanks or other holding tanks.
But the conference committee ended in a dispute concerning whether the industry should have to report to the state any discharges of photo-processing chemicals, medical waste and other toxic materials, which would be illegal under federal law. The conference committee voted along party lines against requiring the report, although industry representatives agreed to a letter of intent to notify the state of any such discharges.
Rep. Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who is co-author of the cruise ship bill, was angered by the final push for another report from the industry. Federal law ensures adequate reporting, he said.
"Do we want to be duplicative, redundant and otherwise repetitive?" Mulder asked sarcastically after the conference committee adjourned. "What's the point? ... It appeared to me to be picking a fight where there was none."
Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat who has been pushing for cruise ship regulation the past two years, said it was a "right to know" issue for the state. If cruise ships don't discharge illegally, they merely would file a report saying that, she said. But the Republicans on the conference committee, including Juneau Rep. Bill Hudson, wouldn't go along.
When the final version of the bill came up on the House floor this morning, Democrats still were complaining about the bill being "watered down."
"It's not all it could be," said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat.
Remarkably, all six Democrats in the Senate voted against the bill because they wanted it to be stronger. In the House, the five no votes came from conservative Republicans.
But House Democrats also expressed misgivings.
"I think this is sort of a wimpy response to the problem," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat.
Mulder bristled at that, emphasizing that Alaska has gone where no other state has gone.
"This is a huge step; it really is," he said.
Halford, who worked closely with Kerttula on the issue, said he believes the environmental issues have been resolved. But there are revenue issues remaining, including making the cruise industry pay the apportioned corporate income tax and a passenger head tax.
"We still have some real big questions," he said.
An amendment for a $10 head tax was defeated by a vote of 10-9 in the Senate. It would have raised about $7 million, which co-sponsor Randy Phillips, an Eagle River Republican, said would be a modest contribution toward the facilities and resources that the cruise industry enjoys in Alaska.
Sen. Bettye Davis, an Anchorage Democrat, voted against the head tax because it wasn't enough to spread some of the revenue among coastal communities. She also objected to the last-minute nature of the amendment, which she thought would kill the entire bill.
Sen. Alan Austerman, a Kodiak Republican who represents small coastal communities in Southeast that might be affected by cruise ship pollution, voted against the head tax. He refused to discuss his reasons.
The Alaska debate is drawing widespread attention.
A recent editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser called upon Hawaiian lawmakers to pass a bill similar to HB 260.
Randy Ray, representing the U.S. Cruise Ship Association, said he is aware of half a dozen states or Canadian provinces that are closely studying the legislation.
"This will set the template for the rest of the planet," Ray told the Senate Finance Committee.
Former British Columbia Premier Mike Harcourt, representing the bi-national environmental organization Oceans Blue Foundation, said that the province is looking to Alaska for leadership.
"There is a growing interest in seeing that this be coordinated and that it be a cooperative effort," Harcourt said in an interview in Juneau. "We're here to say this is not an isolated problem."
He told the Senate Transportation Committee: "We welcome in British Columbia the pioneering work that you're doing."
Oceans Blue is working on a certification program for cruise ships that would recognize "best practices" in the industry, publicizing ships and companies with superior environmental performance.
Despite all the controversy in Juneau, in and out of the Capitol, Tom Dow of Princess Cruises said the company is doing well here.
"It's a great business," Dow told community leaders during a reception on the Dawn Princess Wednesday. "We're happy to be here."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Updates of this story will be posted through Saturday.