The U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation are investigating eyewitness reports the cruise ship Ryndam discharged a brown substance into the water while docked in downtown Juneau on Saturday evening.
Each agency took samples from the ship and the water, according Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve Ohnstad, captain of the port for Southeast Alaska.
"We got a report at 8:20 on Saturday night from the harbormaster staff that the Ryndam emitted from under the water line a brown, thick substance," he said. "In this instance, it looks like some sewage sludge burped out of a tank. We're doing testing to confirm that."
The Ryndam is a Holland America Line ship and was docked at the cruise ship terminal on Saturday. Holland America is trying to figure out why about 250 gallons of partially treated sewage spilled out of a vent on the Ryndam, said Richard Softye, vice president for the company's compliance program. A representative from the makers of the ship's wastewater treatment system will meet the ship in Ketchikan to investigate.
"This isn't pure sewage, but then, to be honest about it, it's not pure clean water that comes out the end of this system," Softye said.
Lab results should be back this week, and until then, it is too early to discuss possible enforcement actions, Coast Guard and DEC officials said. The Ryndam has an advanced sewage treatment system on board and has been approved to discharge treated wastewater, Ohnstad said. However, the ship has not supposed to discharge the type of material at port that officials observed Saturday night, he added.
Juneau resident Scott Foster was walking home from a wedding reception at about 9 p.m. Saturday when he observed the substance in the water near the ship, he said.
"What I saw, looking at the water line, was bubbling brown stuff from the side of the ship," he said. "It didn't look like human waste and it didn't smell like it, but there was some consistency to it."
Coast Guard officials noted less than 1,000 gallons of the substance in the water, although the number is a rough estimate, Ohnstad said. The material has dissipated, he said.
"It's an unusual one. It looks like it was an accident," he said.
Kenwyn George, an environmental engineer with the DEC who responded to the scene, said he noticed a "brown-looking foam to the stern and the side of the ship" when he arrived. The substance didn't appear to be oily, he said.
While George didn't speculate what the substance was, he said officials will be testing for fecal coliform, pH and biochemical oxygen demand levels.
The state last year enacted a stringent new law that regulates cruise ship discharges in Alaska waters. It calls for sampling of graywater and wastewater, air emission monitoring and new limits on where ships can and can't discharge.
The Ryndam tied up in Auke Bay last Monday after a power outage. The ship was kept in port earlier this month because of a virus outbreak on board.