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Cruise industry officials told Gov. Tony Knowles today that they'll continue to underwrite the state's program for monitoring and inspecting their ships.
After a closed-door meeting at the Capitol lasting two and a half hours, a spokesman for more than a dozen senior executives of cruise lines doing business in Alaska said the group found common ground with the governor on protecting the environment.
That includes picking up "reasonable" costs for the oversight program being conducted by the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative, a program launched by the Department of Environmental Conservation that brought the industry to the table with regulators and the public. Knowles said that he will seek to establish a fee that the industry will pay to cover the monitoring and inspection effort, but didn't attach a dollar amount to it.
"The governor didn't ask for a blank check, and we didn't write one," said Dean Brown, executive vice president of Princess Cruises and chairman of the North West CruiseShip Association. He was unable to say how much the industry has spent to date on wastewater sampling and testing.
Brown also pledged to work for passage of federal cruise ship legislation awaiting a lame duck session of Congress, and said association members would abide by its "guidelines," whether it passed or not. He declined to comment on possible state legislation, including a "right to know" bill that would compel cruise companies to disclose specific information on marine discharges.
Despite some vagueness about what was accomplished, Knowles and Brown said in a joint news conference that the meeting itself was groundbreaking.
"We in many ways are on uncharted ground," Brown said. "This certainly is the first time I know of, of a collection of senior executives like this meeting with a state."
"This was an important and necessary first step," Knowles said. "This is just the first step of a long-distance effort. ... We now need to, with a ring of ever-widening concentric circles, involve all of the people who have had a stake in this, certainly all of the Alaska communities, the people who both are dependent upon the industry and dependent upon on the resources."
Knowles did not scold the cruise industry as he did in mid-September, when he demanded that CEOs come to Juneau to tell him exactly when they would be in full compliance with all federal and state environmental regulations. He acknowledged that he came out of today's meeting without a firm date for compliance. "That's something that's going to have to be worked on."
The governor also did not say whether he was satisfied that cruise company officials have been honest with the state in discussing their marine sanitation devices, which treat blackwater, or toilet waste, before it's discharged. Fecal coliform counts in both treated blackwater and untreated graywater, or sink and laundry water, often have exceeded limits for municipal sewage. And the devices in some cases were poorly maintained, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
In September, Knowles called the situation "disgraceful." Today, he noted that there's no legal requirement for the industry to assess whether the equipment is doing the job. "Loopholes in federal law" are therefore partly to blame, he said.
But the governor said he won't be satisfied until Alaskans know that every marine discharge has "the cleanliness we have a right to expect."
Industry spokesmen have said it will take two years to make widespread technological upgrades necessary to clean up wastewater discharges. As a result, environmentalist Gershon Cohen of Haines questions whether the industry can make good on its pledge to abide by the terms of the pending federal legislation, which would set standards for fecal coliform colonies in discharges of both blackwater and graywater.
"Many of the ships can't meet those standards," Cohen said.