Industry officials say they're proud of the progress they've made in the way cruise ships dispose of their daily waste - up to 300,000 gallons of gray water and sewage, 23 pounds of toxic waste and 11.5 tons of garbage for each ship.
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But environmental groups and some citizens say there's no way to know if cruise ships are doing a good job until Alaska requires discharge permits for cruise liners.
Voters will decide in the Aug. 22 primary election whether cruise ships should face stricter environmental standards. Ballot Measure 2 requires cruise ships to obtain state permits to dump waste and calls for placing an ocean ranger on board ships to monitor environmental practices. The initiative also includes a $50 tax per passenger, taxes on gambling in state waters, and a requirement for cruise ships to disclose commissions for promoting on-shore businesses or excursions.
"We don't give anyone else the ability to just tell us they aren't dumping waste," said Gershon Cohen, a sponsor of the measure and member of Responsible Cruising in Alaska.
The mining, seafood and oil industries, as well as cities, need state permits to dump pollutants into Alaska waters, said Cohen, of Haines. The cruise ship industry is an exception. Instead, samples are taken by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation twice a month and random samples are collected by an independent contractor twice in one season.
Ballot Measure 2
A look at what the initiative covers
Wednesday: Disclosure of commissions for business promotions.
Thursday: Environmental requirements and ocean rangers.
Friday: $50 tax on cruise ship passengers.
"The regulatory oversight is as strong as any," said John Hansen, president of the Northwest Cruiseship Association.
Advanced wastewater treatment systems on board many ships operating in Alaska make such permits unnecessary because the water released contains far less pollutants than levels set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state, Hansen said.
Samples taken by the EPA show that pathogen indicators, fecal bacteria, solids and other conventional pollutants were reduced by 99 percent after the wastewater was treated.
"We're really proud of the progress we have made," Hansen said.
According to Cohen, cruise ships' wastewater treatment systems are not designed to do anything other than treat sewage, Cohen said. Water that comes out of the treatment systems could contain chemicals from photolabs and dry-cleaning facilities, lubricants and solvents from machine rooms, pesticides and fungicides used to sterilize the ship, and heavy metals, Cohen said.
In the past, cruise liners have been caught dumping overboard several of these chemicals, Cohen said.
The U.S. Coast Guard checks for these pollutants once a year. State permits would require monthly or even weekly checks of this waste, depending on what each vessel carries, Cohen said.
The ballot measure also will require ship officials to maintain daily records of discharges, provide copies to the state on a monthly basis and collect samples of the vessel's treated sewage, gray water and other wastewater. Gray water is wastewater from showers, sinks and washing machines.
If the initiative passes, ships also will be required to have a U.S. Coast Guard ocean ranger on board to act as an independent observer monitoring pollution standards, as well as sanitation, health and safety practices.
The data will be given to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Hansen said this kind of monitoring is unnecessary and existing environmental requirements already are sufficient.
Supporters of the initiative argue that the cruise ship industry's history, unlike some of its samples, is anything but squeaky clean.
Every major cruise line has been convicted of multiple felony charges for dumping and falsifying pollution discharge records in the last decade, Cohen said. For example, an investigation found that cruise liner Holland America dumped 40,000 gallons of untreated wastewater while docked in Juneau in the summer of 2002.
Holland America first claimed it was 250 gallons. But in the company's plea agreement, it reported 20,000 gallons.
"This is all about verification," Cohen said. "So that we can be sure for ourselves that in fact they are not breaking the law."
The DEC may need to increase its staff and reformat its program to write and issue the permits for all of the vessels, said Albert Faure, a department environmental engineer.
Some $4 of the $50 head tax will go towards paying for the observer program. With the state receiving about 1 million passengers each year, Cohen figures about $4 million will be collected, which should be more than enough to pay for the program.
The initiative also allows civil lawsuits to be filed by citizens who can provide evidence that a cruise line is not following regulations. Citizens could collect money from cruise ship companies if a judge decides in their favor.
The industry fears this provision will lead to frivolous lawsuits, while supporters of the measure say it may only lead to a handful of cases. These lawsuits have been rare in other sectors, Cohen said.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org