Several cruise lines have gotten in the habit of taking their wastewater out to federal waters rather than risk violating strict state limits on pollutants.
As a result, they have to move faster to get out and back, burning more fuel and potentially spending less time in Alaska ports.
This could change. Gov. Sarah Palin signed House Bill 134 this month, empowering the Department of Environmental Conservation to rewrite the rules governing cruise ship wastewater discharge. It was a compromise of sorts between cruise watchdogs and cruise lines.
Right now, DEC has a general permit under which cruise ships can apply to discharge wastewater in Alaska. DEC plans to start rewriting the permit this fall, cruise ship program manager Denise Koch said. The draft will be open for public comments.
Will DEC loosen cruise ship pollution rules?
The issue is mixing zones. Cruise watchdogs want DEC to sample what comes out of the cruise ships at the end of the pipe. The cruise lines want samples taken a distance away, after the waste stream has diluted in the so-called mixing zone, effectively lowering the standards. That's how municipal wastewater treatment plants and other land-based dischargers are governed. But voters in a 2006 ballot initiative outlawed mixing zones for cruise ships.
This year, state lawmakers changed the laws so that DEC can decide whether cruise ships should have mixing zones. The department can loosen the standards if it finds that cruise lines are using the best treatment technology available.
DEC hasn't gotten to that yet. First it will create an 11-person "science advisory panel," also laid out in the revised statute, to help regulators figure out what's feasible.
The law requires one representative each from local wastewater management, commercial fishing, cruise lines and a nonprofit that works on water quality. DEC hasn't decided yet how it will recruit the panel, how long people will sit on it, or how the panel will work, said Koch, though it will hold at least one public meeting.
So far one person, Chip Thoma - with Responsible Cruising for Alaska, a staunch opponent of mixing zones - has told DEC he wants to be on the panel.
Koch said DEC isn't legally bound to take the panel's advice, but wants to hear what it has to say.
Six pollution violations issued so far this year
While DEC works on revising the permit, the old one stands. DEC issued six notices of violation for cruise ships for exceeding wastewater pollution limits in May.
Five of the six went to four Princess Cruises ships. Princess has the largest fleet that discharges wastewater in Alaska.
Despite this year's violations, Bruce Bustamante, Alaska-based Princess spokesman, said, "We believe we're doing well."
That's because while ammonia was an issue, the ships were mostly keeping their zinc, copper and nickel levels down.
For all the cruise ships, those have been the hardest four standards to meet. DEC has temporarily given the companies relaxed limits while they figure out how to comply with the stricter ones. Last summer, 12 of 20 ships that regularly discharged in Alaska were cited for 45 violations of permit levels, most of them for those four problem standards - even with relaxed limits.
Princess's eight ships here all use the same wastewater treatment technology. So, Bustamante said, the company isn't quite sure why some ships have an easier time meeting the standards than others. They're looking into it.
"We don't take this lightly," he said.
Princess avoids the permit problem when it can by hooking up ships to Juneau's Franklin Dock, where it sends graywater to the city treatment plant. Juneau has only one such dock.
The sixth May violation went to the Volendam, a Holland America Line ship whose effluent had 4800 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters, while the limit is 43 in any one day.
Holland America stopped discharging waste in Alaska as soon as the sample was tested, said Bill Morani, vice president for environmental compliance at Holland America Line.
Four of Holland's eight vessels in Alaska this summer are authorized to dump in Alaska waters. The other three are complying, he said.
Royal Caribbean environmental programs director Rich Pruitt said he preferred to err on the side of not discharging. Two Royal Caribbean ships are authorized to dump in Alaska, but he's planning to remove one - he's not convinced it is performing consistently.
"We don't want to take a chance," he said.
The Serenade of the Seas hasn't had any violations this year. Pruitt attributes it to the luxury of some very large tanks, which allow for a longer and more complete ammonia treatment.
• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or email@example.com.
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