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Cruise fees may not cover ocean rangers

State conservation agency to host public information meeting

Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fees collected from cruise ship passengers may not be enough to cover the total cost of a new ocean ranger program launched this year, according to the state agency charged with implementing the program.

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The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation will host a public information meeting Wednesday night to discuss that issue and others related to the new cruise ship oversight program mandated by voters last year.

Sharmon Stambaugh, with the department's Division of Water, said they are still working on how to best implement the ballot initiative.

Passenger fees are expected to generate about $4 million, but that may not be enough to cover the cost of the whole program, she said.

"Paying for a berth on board the cruise ship is turning out to be a considerable cost," she said.

Public meeting

• What: Discussion about the cruise ship oversight program.

• When: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday.

• Where: Juneau Legislative Information Office at 129 Sixth St., Terry Miller Building, Suite 111.

• Host: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

• On the Web: For fact sheets related to the ocean ranger program, visit www.dec.state.ak.us/water/cruise_ships.

Of a new $50 per-passenger fee, $4 goes to the department to implement the program, which requires a U.S. Coast Guard-certified engineer to be on board every large cruise vessel in Alaska.

Joe Geldhof, one of the co-authors of the initiative, said the state should negotiate a reasonable rate or use its powers of eminent domain to pay market rates for the cheapest cabins.

"The big failure of the Department of Environmental Conservation has been their extreme reluctance to jawbone the industry and get a uniform rate that allows the ocean rangers to do their job without harming the finances of the cruise lines," Geldhof said. "Everyone expects the ocean rangers to pay their way, but the industry has clearly been engaged in setting rates that are erratic and border on extortion."

John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, said that charge is simply not true.

"They get the same rate that anyone else that wants to call and reserve a cabin for a voyage will get," Binkley said, adding that the cruise lines are by law prohibited from getting together to fix rates.

"DEC is working very diligently to try to accommodate the requirements of the initiative, which is to have ocean rangers on board the vessels 24 hours a day, on every voyage. It's difficult with the money that the initiative sponsors allocated to be able to do it," Binkley said.

The rangers are charged with ensuring that the ships comply with regulations limiting how much waste they can discharge into Alaska waters. Rangers also are supposed to make sure passengers and crew are protected from improper sanitation, health and safety practices.

One challenge the program faces is getting rangers on the boats once they are in Alaska waters. That often involves flying them into a small town where the boats first dock in Alaska, even though the berths must be purchased for the whole voyage.

A consultant that kept track of the program this summer found there were predictable logistical problems in getting rangers to the right ports, often because of weather-related flight delays, Stambaugh said.

Another challenge is finding Coast Guard-licensed engineers who are also familiar with the environmental regulations they'd be charged with enforcing.

"We are trying to determine the kind of additional training they would need on top of their license to be full-fledged ocean rangers," Stambaugh said.

The meeting on Wednesday will let people know how the department is implementing the program, give a retrospective of the 2007 cruise season and an outlook for the 2008 season.

"(The ocean ranger program) pretty much was a big deviation from the way we had been doing business before. We had a good compliance program in place but this was just taking it to a different level," Stambaugh said.



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