Local and federal regulators give the cruise ship industry high marks for observing laws on air opacity and wastewater discharges. Throughout this year, they say, there hasn't been a single complaint -- in British Columbia.
In contrast to the industry's rough summer in Juneau -- hundreds of thousands of dollars of proposed fines for excessive smokestack emissions in the past; about 20 new emissions incidents already logged this summer; reports of marine discharges worse than raw sewage -- cruise ships are not, by most accounts, an issue in Vancouver.
"Same ships. Same practices. Same regulations. Same emissions. Different harbors, different results," said a recent Vancouver Sun article contrasting the peace there with the controversy here.
"I just found it interesting," said Betsy Fischer, co-owner of the Foggy Mountain Shop in downtown Juneau. "You just wonder who to believe."
Fischer and other local business owners who depend in part upon cruise ship traffic for their livelihood say the Vancouver experience casts a different light on the tough regulatory attitude in Juneau.
"We have not had any public concerns expressed or complaints about visible smoke in Vancouver," said John Hansen, president of the Northwest CruiseShip Association, based in Vancouver.
"We react to complaints, but we haven't had any this year," said Rod Nelson, spokesman for Transport Canada, a federal regulatory agency.
But there are some differences between Juneau and Vancouver that explain some of the discrepancies. The biggest difference is in marine discharges. For cruise ships in Alaska waters, there are extensive state and federal regulations on where treated wastewater can be dumped.
In Vancouver, there aren't. Although ships don't release wastewater in port, they could do so legally.
"The port itself is very clean," said Coralie Mackie of Vancouver, president of the Oceans Blue Foundation, an environmental advocacy group. "My understanding is the cruise ships meet the standard of treatment up and down the Inside Passage. The question is whether the regulations are strong enough."
Canadian regulators aren't checking to see what cruise ships put into the water. But there would be evidence if fecal coliform levels were as high as in the recent sampling of discharges analyzed by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said John Jordan, manager of environmental services for the Vancouver Port Authority.
"I don't know how we can have this kind of disparity between one harbor and the next, with the same ship, unless there's something funny with the sampling."
With air opacity, there is no difference in regulations to confuse the issue. Yet there hasn't been a complaint about excessive smoke for eight or nine years, Jordan said. And that's with cruise ships docking directly in front of an upscale hotel, he added.
In Alaska and British Columbia, smokestack emissions generally are not supposed to obscure more than 20 percent of the visible background. Opacity readers get standardized training in how to view a plume correctly. But in neither city do regulators measure the particulates and chemicals coming out of a ship's smokestack. And if ship operators take measurements, they aren't compelled to share that information with the government, as some industries are. The lack of hard data has led to questions about how scientific the opacity standard is.
"I just wonder how objective the readings are," said Fischer, the Juneau shop owner. "This sort of indicates to me a little bit there's not complete objectivity. My own perception, personally, is I don't see that much (smoke) coming out of the ships myself. I see much more coming out of (industries in) Lemon Creek. And nobody ever says a word about that."
A Juneau-Vancouver comparison isn't all that helpful, say the American regulators and their supporters. Size matters, and the amount of existing air pollution and attitudes about it are different in a town of 30,000 and a metropolitan area of 2 million, they say.
"I flew over Vancouver the other day," said Mike Conway of DEC. Despite a strong breeze, "There was a haze over the city anyway."
Vancouver also has a more open "air shed," while smoke is more apparent within the comparatively tight confines of Gastineau Channel, Conway said.
"When you've got a larger community, it's not the focal point. You've got a smaller community up there," said Mackie, the environmentalist in Vancouver. "You're dealing with a much more transparent issue."
Even if people aren't complaining about cruise ships in British Columbia, they are in Alaska, and regulators have a duty to respond, Conway said.
Steve Torok, senior representative for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Juneau, said the opacity readings aren't as subjective as critics think. They've been "validated time and time again, even in court, as an accurate system," he said.