My turn: When is enough, enough?

Posted: Friday, August 04, 2006

Scott Sloane's July 21 My Turn rehashed an old story of pollution concerns but provided no evidence of new problems with cruise ship pollution in Alaska. Former Gov. Tony Knowles, the Alaska Legislature and the U.S. Congress adequately addressed all the issues he raised back in 2000 and 2002. Alaska is now the global leader in enforcement of cruise ship pollution prevention programs.

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Currently, federal law introduced by governor (then-Senator) Frank Murkowski, "Title XIV-Certain Alaskan Cruise Ship Operations" (effective Dec. 21, 2000), sets effluent standards for blackwater (sewage wastewater) for large commercial passenger vessels. It only allows continuous discharges by cruise ships if secondary treatment standards are met and compliance is demonstrated through semi-monthly sampling. This law also closed former "donut holes" where in the past ships were allowed to discharge raw sewage. The U.S. Coast Guard enforces this law. Furthermore, the Coast Guard only permits near-shore discharges for effluents that are treated to shell fish water quality standards - a standard higher than that required of municipalities. The Coast Guard's enforcement efforts and industry's compliance has been successful so far.

In July 2000, the Legislature passed cruise ship legislation after strong leadership efforts by Gov. Knowles. This cutting-edge law was revised in July 8, 2004. It addresses many cruise ship pollution problems in the 1990s. It sets wastewater discharge limits for both graywater (water from sinks, kitchens, water fountains, etc.) and blackwater. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation enforces this law and may create additional standards if science and technology warrant through an additional regulatory process. Current industry fees pay for this program.

This law also addresses the offloading and disposal of nonhazardous solid wastes (besides sewage) and hazardous wastes in Alaska. Vessel owner-operators are required to annually submit a description of the vessel nonhazardous and hazardous waste handling procedures and to report any deviations from the vessel plan to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Whenever there has been a pollution incident since these laws were passed, the state and federal authorities have immediately investigated and taken appropriate actions. Ballot Measure 2 seems to attempt to fix a system that isn't broken and merely adds new layers of bureaucracy that are unnecessary and duplicative of the strong programs in place now.

My reaction to some of Mr. Sloane's points are:

• State discharge permits are unnecessary. They were extensively studied and addressed in the legislative process described above. Alaska's current program has the same effect as a wastewater discharge permit system, and in some ways is more effective since the requirements are prescribed in state law. Technology developed by the industry to meet Alaska's tough water quality standards meets higher standards than other industries and municipalities in the state. Recent research and extensive sampling and analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency on four cruise ships in Alaska found that the ship's wastewater discharge constituents were a tiny fraction of that allowed by EPA permits for Haines, Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau wastewater treatment plans. In other words, current regulatory requirements and actual performance of cruise treatment systems go well beyond what is allowed under an EPA permit.

• Currently, extensive sampling and monitoring programs (including unannounced sampling) by federal and state agencies are in-place which exceeds other industry standards. They are working, so there is no need for Ocean Rangers or the $4 tax to pay for them. I hope we are not a society that places "big brother/sister" over the shoulder of industry to enforce requirements 24/7. No other industry has this kind of monitoring system in place.

• Currently, industry fees pay entirely for the existing state program. These fees also fund research and analysis programs to see if additional requirements are needed to better protect Alaska's marine environment.

The Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative formed in 1999-2001 by Knowles included a Steering Committee and individual sub-committees with people from government, environmental groups, local citizens, and the cruise ship industry. ADEC staff and I assisted Commissioner Michele Brown and the governor as this group considered cruise ship operations, resulting pollution and development of solutions. We were not constrained by limits such as "Individual states cannot set their own laws, because we are an international industry governed by international laws and requirements." An unbiased panel of marine science experts was also formed to perform a peer review of cruise ship pollution issues and approaches to solve past pollution problems. We all worked through the many issues raised in an open, public forum.

Knowles and Commissioner Brown were strongly pressured to relax their effort to hold the cruise ship industry accountable for their pollution prevention performance and require they work harder to protect Alaska's water and air quality. Nevertheless, they were able to keep the industry's top executives focused on critical issues. In the end, industry, the Legislature, and the governor achieved passage of the toughest cruise ship pollution prevention laws on the planet. Check out ADEC's Web site on cruise ships to see what is already being done and how well it is working.

When is enough, enough? If both federal and state programs are working, why do we need to revisit sins of the past and come up with something new - especially since all of the issues raised in Mr. Sloane's article were addressed through the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative? I think "enough" is working now (and into the future) and ask you to consider joining me as responsible Alaskans and reject Ballot Measure 2.

• Mike Conway is a leadership and management consultant living in Juneau.

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