State regulators say nine cruise ships violated the terms of their wastewater discharge permits in the first half of this year's cruise season.
Six Princess Cruises ships, a Norwegian Cruise Line ship and a Regent Seven Seas Cruises ship were cited for exceeding limits on wastewater pollution. Last week, a Holland America cruise ship was cited. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has not yet dealt with samples from August and September, and may find more violations.
That makes roughly half of the 20 cruise ships that regularly discharge in Alaska waters. Thirty-one large cruise ships are covered under the general cruise ship permit to discharge in Alaska waters, but not all of them do so.
"It wasn't surprising. We self-report the exceedances," said Bruce Bustamante, the spokesman for Princess Cruises. "It's been an ongoing process throughout the summer to make sure our ships are performing as best they can. This is a whole new set of parameters the cruise ships haven't dealt with in the past."
Princess and Holland are owned by Carnival Corp. & PLC, based in Miami and London. Miami-based Norwegian is owned by Apollo Management and the Genting Group. Regent Seven Seas is owned by Apollo.
Denise Koch, cruise ship program manager for DEC, says the permit limits are more stringent than permits for municipalities. The water quality standards are the same, but cruise ship samples are measured at the end of the pipe, where effluents are the most concentrated, rather than after they have been diluted. Cruise lines argue they should be allowed such mixing zones and have lobbied the Alaska Legislature to change the law.
But until then, they're bound under the no-mixing-zone terms of the general permit, which voters in 2006 mandated DEC to issue.
The cruise lines said before the season began they wouldn't be able to meet newly strict limits on four pollutants: nickel, copper, zinc and ammonia. That came to pass even after the state gave the cruise lines less strict interim limits for this year and next. Twenty of the 27 violations were for exceeding those interim limits. The other violations were for fecal coliform, chlorine, acidity and biological dissolved oxygen.
They didn't miss their limits by much, said cruise industry watchdog and Juneau attorney Joe Geldhof. He co-wrote the ballot initiative requiring the permit with Haines-based Gershon Cohen of the Earth Island Institute.
"They're so close," Geldhof said. "With a little bit more work, they can do it."
"They have been making this huge deal about the copper levels in the drinking water, and yet only two ships just barely exceeded the limit for copper," Cohen said. "And all of the ships are pretty close to meeting the nonmixing-zone final permit limit right now. So what was all that about?"
The cruise lines maintain those last trace amounts of pollutants are tough to get rid of.
"We want to meet the limits, but they're very, very, difficult limits to reach," Bustamante said.
How the ships will get to those limits depends on the substance. Copper might be reduced by changing the ships' pipes or where ships get water. Ammonia, found in urine, is unavoidable in wastewater. Decreasing it is more likely to require a technological solution, Koch said.
"Ammonia's clearly something that we need to look at carefully," she said.
Koch has the job of getting the cruise lines to comply with their permit in the long term. To get less-strict interim limits, cruise lines were required to submit plans for reducing their wastewater effluents. The department has yet to formally respond on whether those plans are adequate.
Enforcement of the nine wastewater cases now goes to the state Department of Law, which can decide whether to make the companies pay. According to DEC's letters to the cruise lines, individuals could be fined up to $10,000 and organizations up to $200,000 for such violations.
Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.