JUNEAU -- Cruise ships visiting the capital city are investing in new technology to reduce smoke emissions, but preliminary tests show some appear to still be struggling to meet state air standards.
In nine cases this summer, ships' smoke appeared dirtier than allowed by state standard, said John Kuterbach, air permits program manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency is seeking more information from the companies involved and has not yet determined whether the cases warrant issuing formal notices of violation, he said.
Last year, the department issued 30 notices that ships had violated the state's opacity standard - a measure of pollution that's based on visibility through the smoke plume. Those cases have not been resolved yet.
Kuterbach said he doesn't know whether the smoke problem is better this year than last year because DEC's monitoring last year took place later in the season.
"From what I've seen personally, it seems there's less smoke coming off the ships," Kuterbach said. "However, it is early in the season to see whether or not there's been an overall improvement over the whole fleet."
So far, there is no reason to believe the ships pollute Juneau's air enough to cause overall air quality problems. Ambient air testing at several spots around the capital city last August and September found no violations of health standards.
There were criticisms, however, that the testing occurred over too short a time span and in not enough places, so more monitoring is being done this year.
Cruise ship officials say they are trying to keep the ships' smoke to a minimum.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the parent company of Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, has two new ships in Alaska this year that use gas-turbine engines that emit far less smoke than traditional diesel engines.
Nancy Wheatley, a senior environmental official at Royal Caribbean, said the fuel is about twice as expensive as what the older ships burn, but the new system is more efficient and reliable.
DEC's Kuterbach said the agency has seen no air opacity violations from the gas-turbine powered ships.
Princess Cruises is spending more than $4 million to hook up most of its ships to shore-based power in Juneau this summer. That allows the ships to shut their engines down while in port. The city of Juneau is also contributing $300,000 in cruise ship head tax revenues to the project.
Kirby Day, director of shore operations for Princess in Alaska, said the company is nearly finished installing the shore-side equipment. If testing goes well, by mid-July four of five Princess ships in will be running on shore-side electricity while in port, although the ships will have to power up their engines when entering and leaving.
Last fall, Princess agreed to pay $77,000 to settle U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution complaints from 1999 and 2000, said Don Dossett with the EPA in Seattle. Carnival Cruise Lines paid $42,000 this spring to settle air pollution complaints from the same time period, Dossett said.
EPA notices of violation are still pending against Holland America Line and Celebrity in cases that go back to the 1999 and 2000 cruise season.
"They're just more complex cases and they're just taking longer to evaluate and decide," Dossett said.
The EPA dropped a complaint against Norwegian Cruise Line.
Holland America's vice president for compliance, Richard Softye, said while the company disputes EPA's notice of violation, it has been working for several years to reduce smoke through such measures as keeping engines well maintained and constantly monitoring its emissions.
The company is also building five ships that will use gas-turbine engines while in port and a cleaner diesel fuel while under way. The first is scheduled to sail in 2002, but Softye did not know whether it would serve the Alaska market.