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Intense negotiations continued today in Washington, D.C., on possible new regulations for marine discharges by cruise ships.
State and federal officials, environmentalists and industry representatives are looking at a new draft amendment that would close some loopholes on where ships can dump and also set up an ongoing inspection program, according to David Garman, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican.
Congress might adjourn by the weekend, so a final agreement could be imminent.
But details of the negotiations have been secret, with none of the parties willing to say exactly what the proposed amendment would do.
"Remarkably, everybody has the same goals," Garman said today. "Everybody is more or less trying to do the same things."
But there are some differences on how to proceed.
For example, there are some senators and officials within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who want to address cruise ship discharges as part of the normal EPA rule-making process, Garman said. But he said Murkowski's view is that might take years and some progress needs to be made immediately.
It's a balancing act, Garman acknowledged. "If you squeeze too hard on one end, people fall off the other end."
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles weighed in on the issue last month, calling for stricter standards for wastewater discharges in the Inside Passage and asking for state authority to enforce federal regulations. He said Murkowski's original amendment to the U.S. Coast Guard reauthorization bill might actually have weakened current law.
Today, Knowles spokesman Bob King said he couldn't comment on which issues have been resolved and which remain on the table.
"It's a real moving target right now," King said. "The issue is still very much under consideration."
Knowles has called for new effluent standards, effective in 2001, for both treated blackwater, or toilet waste, and graywater, which is collected from showers, sinks, laundries and galleys. A water sampling program conducted this summer by the state and the Coast Guard found marine discharges of graywater have contained levels of bacteria far above limits for municipal sewage plants, as well as traces of a banned pesticide and elevated levels of heavy metals.
Michael Crye, acting president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, said the industry's goal is "zero impact on the environment," but said that the industry also wants "uniform standards wherever we operate."
"We wish to fully support environmental enhancement to our operations," Crye said from his Virginia office this morning. "I think our industry has learned some lessons and applied those lessons to our operation. The industry has voluntarily stepped forward to have our operation evaluated."
Crye touted the development of new wastewater treatment technology that has been tested on some ships this year. The technology is supposed to clean wastewater to the point where it would meet drinking water standards.
But because it will take a year or two to retrofit all ships with this equipment, Crye said the industry opposes immediate restrictions on discharging untreated graywater. The industry has voluntarily refrained from discharging graywater in or near ports, but ships would face major hurdles in holding on to graywater throughout the Inside Passage, he said.
"Such a requirement, without the installation of the additional equipment that's under investigation today, would severely impact cruise industry vessels for their current itinerary within the Inside Passage of Alaska," Crye said. "It potentially could make it impossible to call on a number of ports in Southeast Alaska."
Crye also complained that cruise ships are "the only maritime sector which is being singled out," even while comprising only 2 percent of the foreign-flagged commercial vessels coming into U.S. ports.
But Randy Ray, president of the U.S. Cruise Ship Association, said the percentage of vessels isn't the issue. Rather, it's the number of people on-board contributing to the waste stream, he said. "A lot of these cargo ships, they have only 20 guys on them."
Many cruise ships visiting Southeast carry 2,000 passengers. With crews included, the cruise industry on a given day in the summer constitutes the third largest city in Alaska, with a population of 45,000 people, Knowles has said.
Ray's association, which represents five domestically flagged companies with a top passenger capacity of 135 people per ship, has done its own testing and found high fecal coliform counts in its marine discharges. "We think everybody should work as quickly as possible to meet standards."
He said the federal legislation is "moving in the right direction."