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Local residents began descending into the bowels of cruise ships today, the kickoff to a three-day environmental awareness program highlighting steps taken by the industry and by regulators to limit problematic discharges and emissions.
Eleven people, including three members of the news media, boarded the Holland America vessel Ryndam this morning for what was billed as a 45-minute tour.
But it became nearly two hours, as Capt. L.N. Schowengerdt Jr., director of policy and plans for Holland America, showed a promotional video tailor-made for Alaska audiences and then spent 45 minutes stressing what he said is the methodical care various cruise lines take in managing solid waste, dirty water and smokestack smoke.
The group then visited the ship's garbage separation room, engine room and control room to view equipment and monitoring devices used to separate, track and treat various kinds of wastes.
``This is the first time we've set up a series of major tours like this'' anywhere in the world, Schowengerdt said. ``It was the obvious thing to do, because we have a great story to tell. And we weren't doing that very well.''
The tours, which are being offered on all ships docking at the Juneau port through Friday, are sponsored by the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative, a collaborative effort of the cruise industry, state and federal regulators, and citizen activists.
The group, which holds a public meeting 6-8 p.m. Thursday in Centennial Hall, is stressing voluntary compliance and independent monitoring of waste streams.
The unprecedented scrutiny of the cruise industry's environmental record in Alaska follows an admission of past water pollution by Royal Caribbean International and federal findings of air-opacity violations in the Juneau port.
But Schowengerdt said Alaska is getting the best environmental protection the industry has to offer.
``The Alaska trade sees the top-of-the-line ships,'' he said. ``This is the premier market (worldwide). You tend to see the best cruise ships up here.''
Members of the touring group, including a cruise industry consultant and a newspaper reporter from Florida, had a generally favorable reaction.
Carl Schrader of Juneau, a state employee, said he is impressed with the general direction of the industry toward improving environmental performance, but he said he's worried the standards don't apply across the board in all fleets. He recalled watching a ship enter port about six weeks ago ``billowing all kinds of black smoke.'' He didn't recall which cruise line it was.
State Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat and cruise industry watchdog, was on the tour.
``I'm glad they're doing this, but I still think they should be giving us formal reports'' with measurements of pollutants released from the ships, Kerttula said. ``It would help them to do that. But that's corporate culture.''
Paul Doherty, second engineer on the Ryndam, showed the group a computer tracking system in the control room that he said gives off an alarm whenever smokestack emissions exceed 15 percent density.
Holland America is one of six companies cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year for violating the air-opacity standard, which requires that no more than 20 percent of the background can be obscured by a ship's plume.
The in-stack monitor, which is based on light dispersion through the smoke, might be a more reliable measurement than the visual observations used to judge opacity, Doherty said. ``It's debatable, but we think it is.''
Some of the technical information being offered was lost, as the group squeezed through narrow corridors wearing earplugs to shut out some of the industrial sounds.
Schowengerdt said that a minimal amount of water is used to flush toilets, resulting in a relatively low amount of ``black water'' that requires municipal-style sewage treatment on-board before being discharged.
A new technology now being installed in the Statendam, which comes into Juneau on Thursday, will treat both black water and gray water -- which includes sink and shower water -- to the point where it would be drinkable, Schowengerdt said. However, Holland America won't use it for drinking water, as the company would have to ``get a lot of people past some very emotional hurdles.''
But he said: ``I'd drink it.''