Ships' waste blasted

Knowles cracks down on cruise line pollution

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2000

Calling the environmental performance of the cruise ship industry "disgraceful," Gov. Tony Knowles said this morning that he wants top industry executives to tell him in person what they plan to do about the discharge of human waste into state waters.

Knowles, in a fiery statement in Marine Park, with the Holland America vessel Ryndam docked in the background, also said he's seeking congressional authority for the state to enforce both federal and state laws on wastewater discharges and even to ban dumping altogether in certain areas.

And the governor announced he will ask the Alaska Legislature to impose fees on cruise ships to fund future monitoring, inspection and enforcement actions, and to require the industry to file reports on its pollutants.

Knowles was responding to new information on samples of cruise ship marine discharges, which are being taken under a cooperative program between regulators and the industry.

Of 36 samples taken from 12 ships that had been analyzed through the end of last week, every single one showed fecal coliform counts far in excess of federal and state standards in some cases, 50,000 times beyond permissible limits, he said.

"In a word, the results are shocking," Knowles said. "This is unacceptable, and we're going to do something about it." To the industry, he said: "You will obey Alaska's laws and respect our values."

Knowles said he will ask the top executives of cruise lines doing business in Alaska to meet in his conference room at the Capitol before Thanksgiving and "come clean with Alaska." Cruise officials had vouched for the effectiveness of their Marine Discharge Systems, and now he wants to know when industry executives found out the pollution-control devices weren't doing the job, he said.

While blackwater, or toilet waste, has not been adequately treated, even more surprising, Knowles said, is that graywater from sinks, laundries and showers is showing particularly high counts of fecal coliform. "When and I want an exact date is this going to be fixed?" he asked.

Initial reaction from the industry was low-key.

"There's certainly no disagreement that we will want to meet with the governor," said John Hansen, president of the North West CruiseShip Association, based in Vancouver, B.C. "I think there will be a lot of disappointment that he felt compelled to take this approach, in that we are in the middle of a process and data is still coming in."

Nancy Wheatley, senior vice president of Royal Caribbean, said the company welcomes the opportunity to review the work done this summer in characterizing cruise ship discharges which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has described as the best data collected so far, she noted.

"We're actually pleased the governor has taken an interest in the industry," Wheatley said from Miami. "We think this is a great opportunity to meet with the governor and brief him on what we believe has been a groundbreaking effort in Alaska."

Reaction from environmentalists and citizen activists, several of whom were thanked by Knowles for their work, was largely positive.

Gershon Cohen of Haines, a longtime water-quality activist, called the governor's remarks "right on the money."

"It was wonderful," said Kim Metcalfe-Helmar, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association in Juneau. Knowles lends "tremendous weight" to the effort to police cruise ship discharges and emissions, she said.

Marc Wheeler, an environmentalist who is running for the Juneau Assembly, immediately proposed requiring cruise ships to use shoreside electricity to reduce smokestack emissions and to use the municipal wastewater treatment system to avoid dirty discharges.

To date, the state has not released the names of ships or companies whose discharges have had the high fecal coliform counts. Knowles said that information eventually will be made public.

Michele Brown, state commissioner of environmental conservation, said she doesn't know if all companies doing business in Alaska are represented in the samples analyzed to date, but said future samples won't miss anyone.

"Our waters are crown jewels," Brown said. "We would be irresponsible if we didn't act to protect them."

Hansen, the cruise industry representative, said there is still much to be learned about what the ships are discharging and how the dispersion in the water might limit any environmental impact. He also said holding graywater for several hours, and not discharging in port, allows bacteria to expand exponentially, giving a distorted view of what discharge levels of fecal coliform otherwise would be.

Mike Conway of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed the samples, and Capt. Ed Page of the U.S. Coast Guard, which collected them, said holding times might have been an issue with the first few samples taken. But a change in sampling procedure early on still resulted in extraordinarily high fecal coliform readings, they said.

Knowles didn't rule out state enforcement actions under current law, although the federal Clean Water Act generally limits the state's role.

Attorney General Bruce Botelho said if the Alaska congressional delegation isn't successful this fall in getting new authority for the state, the Knowles administration is "prepared to test the limits of our authority."

Even without a change in the law, Royal Caribbean is bound by the terms of its settlement with the state for past pollution not to violate environmental standards again, Botelho said. That gives the state some leverage over Royal Caribbean that it might not have with other cruise lines, he said.

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