Cruise ships boost pollution controls

Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 1997

August 18, 1997

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Wednesday, August 20, 1997  Shipboard recycling: Emelito A. Macayan, a crewman on the Sun Princess, sorts aluminum, tin and glass for recycling aboard the ship and prepares them for dropping off at Vancouver, B.C., at the end of the cruise.BRIAN WALLACE / THE JUNEAU EMPIRECruise ships boost pollution controls

However, budget cuts have eliminated monitoring of ships' air emissions

Last modified at 2:14 p.m. on Wednesday, August 20, 1997



This is the fourth in a five-part series examining tourism's impacts on Juneau. Thursday's story will consider the future of the industry.

In a noisy, smelly part of the Ryndam not featured in tourist brochures, two low-ranking employees sort garbage for the ship's on-board incinerators and recycling bins.

Engineers in a nearby control room monitor a computer system hooked to 5,500 alarms, instantly warning of any failure in the cruise ship's waste-handling and pollution-control facilities.

Meanwhile, passengers on shore add to the litter piling up in popular spots such as trails near the Mendenhall Glacier.

Cruise ship officials say they are taking extensive, costly and often overlooked steps to minimize the environmental impact of their increasingly large vessels. But many people say an increase in the number of ships means greater impacts from smokestacks, vehicles providing tours, visitors ignoring trash cans and other on-shore problems.

Aboard the Ryndam, a three-year-old Holland America-Westours ship with room for nearly 1,900 passengers and crew, are two incinerators, sewage treatment plants, a glass grinder and a machine that crushes cans into dense blocks of solid aluminum. They help the vessel cope with the 8 tons of waste generated during a seven-day voyage.

``Every ship we build is a little better, a little cleaner than the last,'' said Capt. Nick Schowengerdt, director of policy and plans for Holland America, during a recent visit on the Ryndam.

Local officials agree the impact of the ships themselves has improved over the years, but some problems remain.

The U.S. Coast Guard performs regular safety inspections, which include checks to ensure ships aren't discharging or leaking pollutants into Gastineau Channel. Lt. Gerard Achenbach, who performs such inspections, said his agency isn't finding any violations of note these days.

``Nobody wants to get caught polluting in Alaska,'' he said. ``The repercussions, at least for some lines, would be catastrophic.''

Federal inspections by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which focus largely on a ship's sanitary conditions, show all inspected vessels stopping in Alaska have at least the required 86 percent approval score.

But air emissions are a major concern of many residents. State budget cuts eliminated the Department of Environmental Conservation's monitoring program, which means there is no way to verify cruise industry statements that ships are within legal limits.

DEC readings show ships exceeded emission limits from 7.5 percent to 16 percent of the time between 1992 and 1995, with no clear trend during the years. The ships with the most violations were generally older vessels, many of which are no longer in service, but officials said that may be offset by an increase in the number of arriving ships.

``As far as the overall impact, I don't know if we've ever really looked at that,'' said John Stone, head of the department's air quality maintenance program. ``The newer ships may be cleaner, but the number of ships has increased so you may have the same number of days where you have adverse visibility impacts.''

The problem is most noticeable on days when inversion layers trap smoke, making even a single ship's emissions appear significant, Stone said. He said emissions from several ships may go virtually unnoticed on a clear, windy day.

Long-term results indicate the industry is complying more with regulations, but ``I think it would be difficult to argue that they're not the primary contributor to the visibility problem that we experience on the days that they're here,'' Stone said.

Not knowing if the situation is getting better or worse is troubling, said Anne Fuller, a state employee who has complained to city officials about the pollution.

``I think these people have not proved satisfactorily that (they) abide by the rules and I believe that's a society function,'' she said. ``We should have an enforcer.''

Stone said state and industry officials will meet this fall to discuss the monitoring program and whether there is a way to revive it.

Another concern is when visitors overlook cruise ship brochures about protecting Alaska's environment - or perhaps even toss them aside.

City Harbormaster Joe Graham, whose department is responsible for trash collection in much of downtown, said he sees a marked difference in litter while walking the streets during the summer and off-season.

``The things that I notice during the summer are the walking tour maps, brochures, things that are colorful and stand out,'' he said.

Honey Calkins, 20, a volunteer ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, said two or three people spend at least an hour every morning picking up garbage at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center and do occasional pickups during the day. She said no-littering signs are ignored and trash is found well off the beaten paths.

``All the way out to Photo Point is the worst because it's the most traveled,'' she said. ``We get anything from beer bottles to candy wrappers to cigarette butts.''

``I was doing litter today and there were cigarette butts right next to the trash can, so obviously they knew it was there. They just don't care.''

Officials on various ships said the best they can do is set examples through policy. Several major lines said any employee caught throwing anything overboard is fired immediately.

``We had an incident a year ago in the Caribbean,'' Schowengerdt of Holland America said, ``where a passenger reported he had seen four or five crew members cleaning up on the deck at 5 in the morning and were throwing ashtray residual overboard, supposedly because it was easier to do than to take it inside and dispose of it properly.''

When the employees admitted the violation ``they were off the ship at the next port and on their way home to Indonesia,'' he said.

Stricter international environmental regulations have partially resulted in the cleaner ships, but officials on several lines said their standards frequently go beyond those requirements. Part of the reason, they said, is it's good business sense because of the increased global scrutiny of environmental matters and Alaska's reputation as an unspoiled destination.

``The oversight of cruise ships in Alaska, which is understandable because of an environment which is unspoiled and the reason people have gone there to live in the first place, is intense but reasonable,'' said Ron Valentine, director of operations for World Explorer Cruises in San Francisco. ``I don't think I've ever heard anybody say with the doors closed that anything they've been asked to do is something they shouldn't be doing.''

In the lower levels of the 1,950-passenger Sun Princess, several local officials and residents recently got to observe facilities allowing the ship to travel from Vancouver, B.C., to Seward without off-loading trash or dumping wastewater - even when treated to drinking water standards - in port.

The $300-million ship has $2.5 million of equipment designed to minimize environmental impacts and older ships have been retrofitted with similar equipment, said Richard Wade, Princess' vice president of environmental health programs.

Food waste, for example, is turned into a sludge, dried and then mixed with waste oil for incinerator burning when vessels are at sea. Ashes from all incinerated waste are kept in a storage room about 15 by 30 feet in size, which during the tour was about one-quarter full after 10 days of traveling.

``We have more than this that we collect from our parks in one day,'' said Bob Grochow, Juneau's parks superintendent, while viewing the room.

The ship's sewage waste, or ``black'' water, is treated by four treatment plants to drinking water standards and released while sailing, Wade said. ``Gray'' water from showers and other sources can be released in port - and state environmental officials said it poses no apparent hazard - but Wade said the water is chlorinated and released at sea.

Air emissions have been reduced by burning more efficient fuel through newer engines, Wade said. Only one of the ship's four engines is kept running in port in order to provide power.

Those taking the tour liked what they saw.

``You have to be impressed with the progress that apparently they've made from many years ago,'' said Nancy Waterman, who with her husband owns a local scientific and technology research firm. ``Not just that the Sun Princess was equipped with that kind of waste management system, but that the older ships have been retrofitted.''

Still, Waterman said some of the gains are offset by increased activity downtown, and factors such as noise pollution from ships and air tours must also be considered. Also, in a letter to Wade she asked if modifying ships to use shore-based power in port is feasible, in order to reduce emissions.

Wade said there are no ports in the world equipped to power ships, even if a plug-in system was installed on ships.

Other ships, especially older ones, don't always have all the equipment installed on newer ships such as the Sun Princess and Ryndam. Valentine, with World Explorer Cruises, said the 39-year-old Universe Explorer off-loads trash in Juneau because it lacks incinerators. He said employees sort recyclables out first.

The Legend of the Seas, a two-year-old Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. vessel, discharges its treated ``black'' water in port, said Bruno Ceccarelli, the ship's chief engineer. He said samples are tested twice weekly by the ship's medical staff and no problems have occurred to date.

Cruise officials emphasized repeatedly it is in their interest to minimize their environmental impact so passengers keep coming. Schowengerdt, with Holland America, said passengers also are asking about such measures increasingly often, although he can't say whether it has any influence in choosing a ship.

``To be totally 100 percent cynical, I guess you'd have to say it can't hurt,'' he said.

Copyright © 1996, 1997 Southeastern Newspaper Corp.

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