My Turn: Cruise industry has plenty of fight left

Backers of Ballot Measure 2 score win, but face another battle

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2006

Congratulations to Responsible Cruising in Alaska, the sponsors of Ballot Measure 2, for a terrific win in the recent primary election. Alaskans agreed that the time has come to impose a state passenger fee on cruise ship tourists, and the majority voted for the ballot measure. Despite threats, the voters realized that this lucrative industry isn't leaving a premier destination like Alaska, and that the measure will benefit passengers, host communities and the cruise lines.

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Yet Alaska is at another juncture with the cruise ship industry. It has pledged to reverse Ballot Measure 2 and subvert the will of the voters. There are already reports that cruise ship lobbyists are working the Congress to overturn the ballot measure before it even takes effect. That would be a tragedy after such a contentious campaign and a clear voter preference for cruise ship reform.

To give some local history, Juneau passed a modest $5 passenger fee in 1998. The industry hasn't left town, local businesses have flourished, and the cruise industry has grown every year by close to 10 percent. Juneau properly uses the passenger fees to fund dock and harbor improvements, a sea walk and marine park, traffic safety and emergency services. Importantly, Juneau's passenger fee complies with federal law.

But in 1998, cruise ship air and water discharges remained largely unregulated. Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd. was convicted that year on 21 felony counts for dumping hazardous wastes in U.S. waters, including Alaska. In the fall of 2000, samples of fecal coliform bacteria taken by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation showed bacteria levels that were up to 50,000 times beyond permissible limits. Then Gov. Tony Knowles said enough was enough, and held a waterfront press conference to say that the cruise industry would not operate in Alaska waters without cleaning up its act. The governor's leadership marked the country's first challenge to standard cruise ship practices of dumping untreated sewage in state and federal waters.

Knowles told the cruise industry that their actions were unacceptable and said, "You will obey Alaska's laws and respect our values." Direct involvement by the governor changed the playing field remarkably. Critics of an industry that dumped raw sewage, polluted municipal air, and yet expected communities to pay for the privilege of hosting them, were now taken seriously. Citizens were seated at the table with top cruise line executives who had never before dealt with citizens in port towns. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard were also at the table, and, together with state regulators, made it very clear that Alaska would no longer be treated like a Third World country.

Knowles declared a Cruise Ship Initiative program that resulted in huge changes industrywide. The major cruise lines started air and water pollution testing. In Juneau, the industry paid for an ambient-air monitoring project that surveyed air pollution levels and tested particulate and sulphur dioxide levels. As a result, Juneau and the cruise lines jointly purchased shore and shipboard power units, paid with passenger fees, and ships were retrofitted with new fuel injection systems to reduce harbor air pollution.

Plus, the shocking results of wastewater sampling forced the cruise ships to replace their broken, outdated systems with an array of 21st century sewage treatment plants to treat black and gray water for subsequent marine discharge.

We recount this history of the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative because the issue isn't dead. If Congress now listens to lobbyists, Ballot Measure 2 could fail before it even becomes law. Alaska needs a governor who will insist that the state defend this voter-approved law all the way. Knowles may not have agreed with everything in Ballot Measure 2, but his past actions show clear support for the reform of cruise ship pollution and reporting practices. We are confident that if re-elected governor, Knowles would work with all parties to defend and implement this important law passed by Alaska voters.

• Kim Metcalfe and Chip Thoma are Juneau residents who served on working groups of 2000-2001 Cruise Ship Initiative.

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