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The cruise industry has reduced smoke stack emissions this year compared to last year, but some of the big ships continue to exceed standards for pollutants in wastewater, according to a preliminary state report.
The levels of fecal coliform bacteria and suspended solids in wastewater discharged into the Inside Passage in 2001 is consistent with high levels found last year, said David Rogers of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
"The problem still exists," said Rogers, deputy director of DEC's Division of Air and Water Quality.
However, two ships equipped with new technology to treat wastewater achieved very low levels of pollutants, according to the report released today. Pollutants on board other ships, which were not identified, could drop significantly as more cruise lines adopt the technology, Rogers said.
"There's some high numbers and we're going to keep getting high numbers until all the vessels install new or improved treatment systems," he said.
A group representing cruise lines issued a written statement saying the report shows "the industry's large investment in cutting-edge technology is producing results."
"We're very pleased with the findings to date," said John Hansen, president of the North West CruiseShip Association, which represents nine major cruise lines operating in Alaska.
A Juneau conservationist who tracks the issue was less impressed.
"I think everyone understands these ships will continue to violate standards until their treatment systems catch up with the ability to handle large levels of concentrated waste," said Amy Crook of the Center for Science in Public Participation.
A similar report in 2000 alarmed some political leaders and prompted the Legislature to pass a law restricting allowable levels of fecal coliform bacteria and suspended solids in blackwater, or toilet waste, and in graywater from sinks, laundries and showers.
Some wastewater samples taken from ships this year far exceeded standards set by lawmakers in June, but most of the samples were collected before the new law went into effect July 1, said Rogers of the DEC.
Under the monitoring program, an independent contractor took samples from 11 of the 24 ships operating in Alaska this season. The 13 nonparticipating ships discharge all wastewater beyond state waters three miles from shore and are not subject to standards in the new law, the report said.
The preliminary report includes findings from 35 samples taken from tanks and discharge lines in seven of the 11 ships. Of the seven, five discharge only graywater in state waters, one discharges graywater and blackwater in the Inside Passage, and one releases all wastewater outside state waters.
Although some samples fell far below legal levels for fecal coliform bacteria, others measured up to 45,000 times beyond permissible limits. The agency excluded half the samples for the bacteria because it took too long to get them to the lab, Rogers said. Out of 19 samples considered valid, nine exceeded state standards and 10 did not.
The results for suspended solids also ranged from very low to significantly higher than standards set in state law.
Rogers said most of the samples came from graywater, which isn't supposed to contain pollutants from toilet waste. However, he emphasized it's unclear whether the high levels are hurting the environment. The state has formed an independent panel of scientists to study the pollutants' effects on marine life, he said.
He also noted 14 ships elected to discharge all wastewater beyond state waters this year, so the cruise lines released fewer pollutants into the Inside Passage in 2001 than in 2000. But it's also unclear whether the wastewater is harming marine life in the open ocean, he said.
Crook, the conservationist, said discharges outside state waters could affect people, too.
"In Southeast, the outside waters are not outside of areas that influence people's harvest areas, either subsistence, commercial or sport," she said.
The report found some improvement in air emissions this cruise season. The state found 19 potential violations of air opacity standards in 2001 compared to 30 last year, the report said. Some cruise lines have spent millions of dollars on new technology to reduce exhaust emissions, said Hansen, the cruise industry official.
The data did not raise any major concerns about health hazards associated with smoke stack emissions, suggesting that downtown Juneau does not have an ambient air quality problem, the report said.
The state expects to release a final report later this year.