Good examples better than posturing

My turn

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

As a state of Alaska marine pilot, I make my living piloting the cruise ships on the waterways of Alaska. Like others, I want the waters of Alaska to be clean and well-preserved. After all, the pristine reputation of Alaska is the main selling point for the tourists who pay to cruise here.

I can testify to the new and improved environmental policies now embraced by the cruise lines. Now these policies will be reinforced by mandatory state monitoring. Alaskans can be assured that the environmental attitude of the maritime industry is greatly improved since 1974, when I caught my first ship in Dutch Harbor. The new environmental practices are nothing short of a sea change from the "good old days," before the enactment of modern pollution regulations.

The issue of cruise ship pollution has raised a remarkably indignant outrage from some of the public and politicians. One letter to the Anchorage Daily News was headlined "Alaskans deserve better than garbage barges fouling waters." Really? Maybe Alaska does, but I'm not sure Alaskans do. While the cruise ships are convenient targets, the operable phrase on this issue might be "the pot calling the kettle black." I wish I had a dollar for every gallon of fuel spilled by fishermen fueling their boats, and a dollar for every gallon of untreated oily bilge water they pump overboard. Sewage treatment on fishing boats? Flushing is the treatment. This sort of chronic persistent pollution also degrades the water quality. Add to this the people living on boats in the boat harbors (flushing overboard) and the harbors can get pretty putrid. A cruise ship dumping treated graywater might actually be an improvement.

The problem is not limited to fluid pollution. A couple years ago the Ketchikan paper printed a picture of a pyramid of old batteries that had been dumped into the water through the floor of a waterfront business. Yes sir, lead and acid make great bait for the King Salmon Derby! Maybe the cruise lines' once-cavalier attitude about polluting was encouraged by how they observed Alaskans treat their own environment.

Alaskans always tout their love for Alaska and its environment, but they sure have a funny way of showing it. The view from my condo in Ketchikan includes six boats wrecked and abandoned along the shoreline, dirty rundown buildings, junked cars, and wind-blown fast-food litter. A drive around Ketchikan only reinforces the junkyard appearance. The whole town needs a makeover from pressure-washing, painting, and fleet of tow trucks.

I have found the same sad scene as I have traveled the coastline of Alaska from Metlakatla up to the Bering Sea. It is the same inland. I recently drove from Valdez out toward McCarthy. The natural vistas were stunning, marred only by the junked cars, trucks, trailers, snowmobiles, heavy equipment, etc. associated with the human habitation. Often, what Alaskans think is a brave settlement on the new frontier would be considered just an eyesore in the Lower 48.

My condo in Ketchikan has a perfect example of the environmental contrasts in Alaska. The view of the harbor includes an area where eagles roost, otters frolic and seals glide about. Tourists pay shore excursion operators to come view the sights. Parked next to where the tour buses pull in is a garbage truck. It belongs to the owner of the bowling alley. It is partly filled with garbage and as it collects rain water it leaks a stinking, fetid garbage slurry onto the ground. That foul slurry eventually makes its way into the water. A classic example of the best and the worst of Alaska.

Alaska is a special place. It deserves special treatment from visitors and residents alike. So how about it Alaskans: When you grow tired of your indignant ranting about the cruise ships, maybe you can direct some of that self-righteous energy toward cleaning up your own messes. Leading by example is always better than hypocritical posturing.

L.G. Picton lives in Ketchikan.

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