Environmentalists said today that a tentative agreement in Washington, D.C., on regulating the cruise ship industry could be a major breakthrough in protecting Alaska waters from pollution.
Meanwhile, an industry spokesman expressed concerns about the draft amendment still being worked on by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican.
Murkowski has been brokering a deal among state and federal agencies, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, the industry and environmentalists, and is about to submit new proposals on cruise ship standards to a House-Senate conference committee on a bill dealing with the U.S. Coast Guard. That bill could be passed out of Congress within the next week.
"We're still at it," David Garman, Murkowski's chief of staff, said this morning.
Garman said he couldn't discuss details. "We haven't reached closure."
But Gershon Cohen of Haines, a longtime water-quality activist involved in the negotiations, said there is broad agreement among all parties involved, except the cruise ship industry.
"To their credit, Sen. Murkowski's office has been willing to work closely with the Knowles administration, the conservation community, as well as federal agencies, to produce a bill that is good public policy," said Cohen, the point man for several groups, including the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters, the Alaska Conservation Alliance, the Center for Science in Public Participation, and Cruise Control.
"If it can be passed, I think we will have moved a major step forward in getting control back over the quality of the waters of Alaska," he said. "My understanding is that the cruise ship industry is not happy with a lot of this language. ... We'll find out in the next few days how powerful this industry is."
Noting that major cruise lines are foreign-flagged and don't pay U.S. taxes or operate under minimum wage laws, Cohen said the industry "shouldn't be permitted to be influential in matters of policy within the United States."
Joe Geldhof of Juneau, an attorney and conservationist who has been following the issue, said it's not over.
"The industry has lurked on the sidelines and is now beating the crap out of this thing in the House," he said. "I'm not real gloomy, but I'm not real optimistic."
Michael Crye, acting president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, confirmed the industry is alarmed by some tentative provisions.
For example, the current version of the proposed amendment would bar ships from discharging graywater within one mile of the nearest shore in Alaska. Graywater is water collected from sinks, showers, laundries and galleys, and generally is not treated before dumping.
That requirement would create a navigation hazard between Juneau and Skagway as too many ships would be forced into the middle of Lynn Canal, Crye said. The industry would prefer a standard that considers water depth and permits discharges closer to shore, he said.
Crye also was concerned about a provision allowing the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set a new discharge standard for graywater that would put limits on bacteria and pollutants. Cohen expressed disappointment that the passage stating the EPA administrator "may" set such standards didn't read "shall," and he expressed hope it will be made mandatory.
Crye said the industry needs up to two years to have newly developed technology in place that can clean up graywater before discharge.
The industry is also concerned the tentative Murkowski amendment would allow the federal government to detain ships when there is "reasonable suspicion" of an environmental violation, Crye said. Allowing ships to be stopped without proof of a pollution incident poses a significant threat to smooth operations, he said.
The tentative amendment also would:
Bar all discharges of untreated sewage.
Require a monitoring and inspection program by the Coast Guard, with water sampling and testing to verify compliance.
Require cruise ships to notify the Coast Guard immediately when environmental violations occur.
Award up to half of any administrative fine or penalty for noncompliance to whistle-blowers inside cruise lines who provide information proving an infraction.
Allow the state of Alaska to ask the EPA for permission to establish no-discharge zones in environmentally sensitive areas.
Also, the legislation as now drafted specifically says Alaska can impose stricter standards and additional penalties of its own, Cohen said. However, it stops short of Knowles' request that the state have authority to enforce federal regulations, he said.