A cruise ship bill might sink in Congress as lawmakers work toward a weekend adjournment.
But the pending legislation, which has been agreed to by environmentalists, the state of Alaska and the cruise industry, has laid the groundwork for future discussions on clean water, said David Garman, chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski.
Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, finally brokered a deal this week on monitoring ship discharges in state waters and imposing new restrictions on them.
"I think the effort was worth it," even if the bill doesn't survive the final hectic days of the session, Garman said this morning.
Clean-water activist Gershon Cohen of Haines, who represented a variety of state and national environmental groups in the negotiations, said there are "more positives in here than negatives."
"I've offered my support for the bill, not without some hesitation," he said. "Nobody was thrilled with all of it."
Michael Crye, acting president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, was more emphatic.
"We support the current version of the Murkowski legislation," Crye said Wednesday. "We have pledged to work in any way possible to get it through."
The bill calls for the U.S. Coast Guard to conduct sampling and testing of marine discharges from cruise ships. It would allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose treatment standards and regulations on discharges of graywater from showers, sinks, laundries and galleys.
Under the bill, cruise ships generally couldn't discharge graywater and treated blackwater, or toilet waste, within a mile of shore, although the Coast Guard could make exceptions in consultation with state officials. In that case, companies would have to produce test results showing their discharges meet certain standards, including Alaska law on fecal coliform counts in seafood processing operations.
Also, the state could ask the EPA to declare no-discharge zones in environmentally sensitive areas and could impose discharge regulations of its own.
John Katz, director of the Washington, D.C., office of Gov. Tony Knowles, said he's worried Congress could leave Friday without dealing with the issue.
The governor supports the compromise, even though he didn't get everything he wanted, Katz said. "I guess our view is that we're at the point in the legislative process where the perfect is the enemy of the good. While some improvements could be made, it's essentially a good piece of legislation that deserves to be enacted. ... I think Sen. Murkowski did a very good job with keeping the parties at the table and generating discussion among them."
The only parties "who aren't overtly supportive" are EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice, Murkowski staffer Garman said. The Clinton administration's negotiators have agreed the bill would be better than current law but continue to press their objections, he said. "They, for some reason, really don't want the bill."
Part of the concern is that the bill addresses only Alaska waters, Garman said. "It could take years to do this on a national basis. We want to close these loopholes now. We think Alaska's different."
The Justice Department also has been adamant about being able to detain cruise ships when there is reasonable cause to believe an environmental violation has taken place, Garman said. Following strenuous industry objections, that section was dropped, he said.
"I think that's a red herring," Garman said. With 2,000 American passengers on many ships, "They're not going to flee and disappear over the horizon."
Katz said he does not expect a veto if the measure reaches the president's desk.
The immediate problem is that the chosen "vehicle" for the cruise ship amendment - the bill reauthorizing the Coast Guard - is caught in a debate between the cruise industry and trial lawyers about liability for on-board deaths, Garman said. Now Murkowski also is looking for spending bills he could attach it to.
Garman said Alaska's congressman, Republican Don Young, now supports the legislation. Young had been quoted earlier as saying Murkowski was responding to "hysteria" about cruise ships. Young's spokesman in Washington, D.C., didn't return a phone call this morning.
"I'm not hearing anything from Rep. Young," said Crye, the industry spokesman.
If Young is now in support, "That would help the equation a lot," Katz said.