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Calmer cruise waters

Operators seeing fewer problems, more appreciation this year

Posted: Tuesday, August 21, 2001

The cruise ship business is smoother sailing in Juneau this summer. There are some ripples, but few waves.

During their third annual community forum in Juneau Monday evening, Royal Caribbean International executives faced the smallest, but most appreciative, audience yet.

Senior Vice President Nancy Wheatley said Coast Guard officials have certified a second RCI ship for discharging wastewater anywhere in the Inside Passage, after demonstrations proving that the discharges meet the most stringent environmental standards.

Two Holland America Line ships also have been certified, said Vice President Al Parrish.

Ambient air monitoring downtown continues to show no apparent danger of clean air violations, although there have been complaints about haze from ship smokestacks.

So far, state officials aren't reporting any problems in implementing the new law that calls for cruise lines to register with the state, pay a fee and enter into negotiations on pollution regulations. A formal update from the state Department of Environmental Conservation is due next week.

Jack Williams, president of Royal Caribbean, told a handful of Juneau residents at Centennial Hall that the corporation, which also operates the Celebrity Cruises line, is benefiting the local economy substantially. In turn, he was thanked by leaders of four Juneau nonprofit organizations for ongoing charitable contributions.

"It's an extremely important destination to this industry," Williams said.

A Royal Caribbean subsidiary this year launched motorcoach and glass-domed railcar tours in Southcentral and the Interior, and along with the rest of the industry continues to promote Alaska as a destination, Williams said.

"We're just committed to growing this destination. We're not into the market-share game," he said.

No other state benefits from as much industry advertising - at least $50 million a year, according to Parrish - as Alaska does from cruise lines, Williams said.

The industry also is picking up much of the cost for a second round of ambient air monitoring downtown. Last year, six weeks of monitoring during August and September - the wet season - showed that the highest pollution reading was only 40 percent of the maximum permissible level under federal law.

In the testing that began this year in early May, typically a drier period when air pollution might be more of a problem, "the values are pretty much the same," said Gerry Guay, DEC's project manager.

That doesn't mean there aren't complaints, though. In July, there were 37 calls to DEC regarding emissions that obscured the view.

"There's a difference between ambient air concentrations and aesthetics," Guay said. "If it takes away your view of the mountains, then it is a problem for you."

Two RCI ships with cleaner-burning gas turbine engines, as well as Princess Cruises' unique dockside power plug-in, are putting pressure on the entire industry to make strides in cleaning up visible emissions, he said.

Last year, dozens of citations were given to cruise companies by federal and state officials for violating the opacity standard, which generally prohibits emissions from obscuring more than 20 percent of the background. Some of the cases were dropped without fines being imposed. DEC hasn't released up-to-date information on opacity violations, but an official said this morning the rate of violations through mid-July was about half of last year's pace.

There have been at least three cases of cruise ships apparently violating wastewater discharge standards under the so-called Murkowski law, which prevents discharge of treated toilet waste or untreated graywater within a mile of shore or at a speed of under 6 knots. Exceptions are made when treatment technologies are shown in advance to reduce pollutants to acceptable levels. All three alleged violations announced by the Coast Guard apparently were accidental.

While there's a calmer political atmosphere at the moment, it might not last. Williams of RCI said a $50 cruise passenger head tax, proposed by some legislators and part of a pending ballot initiative, would require cutbacks in charitable giving or environmental technology.

In an interview with the independent industry newsletter Cruise Week, Kirk Lanterman, chairman and CEO of Holland America Line, warned that "this industry can move ships."

"Certainly the growth could stop," Lanterman said.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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