Recent analysis of wastewater dumped from cruise ships in Southeast waters shows more than a subtle violation of federal standards on fecal coliform.
The highest readings were 100,000 times in excess of the regulation, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, which took the samples, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed them.
"To some degree, there is a little bit of surprise it's this high," said Capt. Rob Lorigan, Juneau port commander for the Coast Guard.
The agency has been taking the samples as part of the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative, a working group of state and federal regulators, industry officials and citizen activists trying to find collaborative solutions to environmental problems.
Under the voluntary agreement by cruise lines to allow the water testing, specific names of ships and companies won't be released now, although documented violations eventually will become part of the public record, Lorigan said.
The Coast Guard is conducting two random samplings on all 22 major cruise ships that travel in Southeast and turning the results over to DEC for analysis. Included have been both treated blackwater -- or toilet waste -- and graywater, such as from showers and sinks.
Different kinds of tests will be conducted on the samples. The first five samples to have gone through the entire review process for "conventional pollutants" all show violations. About 20 samples have been taken so far, Lorigan said.
A federal regulation limits fecal coliform to 200 per 100 milliliters, but some samples were in the "tens of millions," said Deena Henkins, a water quality expert with DEC. Fecal coliform is "an indicator organism" that, while not harmful by itself, can reveal the presence of feces and pathogens from warm-blooded animals, Henkins said.
Some of the sampled water from cruise ship discharges exceeds the normal fecal coliform intake at the Anchorage sewage plant, although that's partly because blackwater and graywater are mixed together in municipal systems, creating dilution, she said.
Nevertheless, "These are very big red flags," said David Rogers, manager of DEC's water quality program.
The results are so extreme, Lorigan said, that all possibilities must be considered, including design flaws and capacity issues with the Coast Guard-approved treatment systems.
The five vessels from which the samples were taken, owned by five cruise lines, will be reboarded to examine equipment and observe operational procedures, he said.
Tom Dow, vice president of Princess Cruises in Seattle, said Friday his company received a Coast Guard request for reboarding of the Ocean Princess, but he said he has no information on any testing done of water discharged from the ship.
Dow speculated that holding on to the water samples allows bacteria growth to accelerate, giving far higher readings than would have been obtained at the time of marine discharge.
"We know that bacteria multiply when it's held for extensive periods of time," he said. "We may have water that's being held for 12 or 14 hours."
Lorigan said that possibility is being taken into account.
But Dow said Princess isn't complacent.
"I don't like the impression that's left that cruise ships are harmful to the environment, and we need to work very hard to address this perception that I think is left with a lot of people," he said. "We have work to do here, no doubt about it. I know we can rectify these problems. It's something we have to do."
Rogers said: "I think we've got the industry's attention."