Cruise initiative brought about federal, state laws

Groundbreaking partnership of citizens, regulators, industry dissolves after two years

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2001

Imagine this:

A government agency, faced with a complex and unprecedented problem, engages the private sector and the public in a cooperative program to define and resolve the issues.

Then, within two years, laws are enacted at both the federal and state levels, tens of millions of corporate dollars are invested in cutting-edge technologies, and the program, its goals realized, is terminated.

Actually, you don't have to imagine it. It just happened.

On Thursday, the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative disbanded. The group of state and federal regulators, industry executives and citizen activists held its final steering committee meeting, and everyone agreed they had made measurable impact in assessing and reducing cruise ship pollution, even on an international level.

"We really learned a lot about the industry; the industry learned a lot about itself," said Michele Brown, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and founder of the Cruise Ship Initiative. "We did set the standards for the country. ... This may be the first time you ever hear government say, 'A project started and here it's ending.' "

"The initiative served its purpose, and we're done," said steering committee member Loren Gerhard, executive director of the Southeast Conference, a nonprofit group of government and business interests.

"Thank you, and it's been an exciting experience," John Hansen, president of the North West CruiseShip Association, told Brown as the final meeting adjourned.

Of course, it's not really over. The voluntary program is gone, but there are federal and state government programs taking over. Many of the same players will continue to work on cruise ship issues in a variety of forums.

"I think we've got a long way to go," said Marcia Combes, director of Alaska operations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I think the hardest part really is yet to come."

Nor did the initiative resolve all issues. For example, there's still disagreement about whether the dilution and dispersion of pollutants in marine waters is reason to allow more lenient standards for wastewater discharges.

But it's also hard to overstate how much has happened since Dec. 3, 1999, when Commissioner Brown first convened the Cruise Ship Initiative in Juneau.

Into the unknown

Brown came up with the idea as a result of enforcement actions against Royal Caribbean. In July 1999, the cruise company pleaded guilty to 21 felony violations of federal law, including seven in Alaska, and agreed to pay a fine of $18 million, $6.5 million in connection with clandestine pollution of Gastineau Channel and Lynn Canal in 1994-95.

Prior to that, nobody was paying much attention to cruise ship pollution, aside from ongoing complaints about smokestack emissions in Juneau. Since abandoning an ambient air monitoring program due to budget cuts, DEC didn't have a cruise ship program.

Federal law prohibited the dumping of untreated sewage within three miles of shore, although "donut holes" within the Inside Passage were effectively a loophole.

In the Inside Passage there are areas three miles from shore that nonetheless are mostly surrounded by land.

There was little oversight of sewage treatment, anyway. Ships were required to have what's called Marine Sanitation Devices, but later it was discovered that many of them weren't working properly, weren't maintained or simply weren't designed to handle the volumes of waste put through them.

Water-quality activist Gershon Cohen of Haines argued that DEC had enough legal authority to apply state standards to cruise ship discharges, but Brown said she didn't think there would be legislative support for such a program without some data first.

"There is confusion and fear about current practices and standards," Brown said at the inaugural initiative meeting in 1999. "The agencies with primary oversight duties have little information. Unlike other industries, there is little monitoring, little knowledge and little agency ability to evaluate or explain to the public how the resources for which we have been entrusted are being protected.

"That isn't to say there are a lot of illegal or harmful activities. It is to say that the public does have the right to know and expects the agencies tasked with protecting the environment to be able to tell them," Brown said.

Initially, cruise officials expressed confidence that the initiative would vindicate their environmental performance. Ted Thompson of the International Council of Cruise Lines said an "educational process" was required to reassure the public "that we're doing what we say we're doing."

So cruise companies welcomed on-board wastewater sampling and agreed to pay for it.

But the news wasn't good. While to date there has been no evidence of hazardous wastes being mixed with wastewater, the levels of fecal coliform bacteria an indicator organism for the presence of human or animal waste were often thousands of times greater than what is allowed after treatment in municipal sewage plants. To everyone's surprise, this was true not just of blackwater, or toilet waste, but also of graywater, which is collected from showers, sinks, laundries and galleys.

Government reacts

When the results came back in September 2000, Gov. Tony Knowles stood in Juneau's Marine Park, in front of the docked Holland America vessel Ryndam, and called the industry's performance "disgraceful." He demanded that cruise executives come to Juneau to explain themselves.

Meanwhile, a bill in Congress by Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, suddenly took on a whole new dimension. Originally intended just to close the "donut hole" loophole, the bill was expanded to set a fecal coliform limit for blackwater and prevent all discharges within a mile of shore in Alaska unless companies could demonstrate top-flight sanitation. Murkowski also gave a regulatory role to the U.S. Coast Guard and explicitly allowed further regulation by EPA and by the state of Alaska.

In their meeting with Knowles a year ago, cruise executives pledged to support the Murkowski bill, which was signed into law in December. Later there was disagreement about whether they also pledged to support state regulation, although in the end they accepted it.

A bill largely based on one introduced by Knowles was passed in June after the governor called back the Legislature into special session. It includes a phased-in limitation on bacteria in graywater added in a House committee that is the first such standard anywhere in the world.

The law went into effect July 1, and the state began collecting a fee of roughly $1 per passenger to pay for its environmental oversight. Now DEC is forming a committee that will go through a negotiated rulemaking process, with the intent of having regulations in place for the 2002 cruise season.

Meanwhile, the EPA is looking at possible new federal regulations for blackwater and graywater.

"We commend Alaska's efforts to control cruise ship discharges into your territorial seas, and we believe the Alaskan model for managing these discharges is one that should be broadly emulated," EPA Assistant Administrator G. Tracy Mehan III wrote to Knowles last month.

Industry reacts

It has been the work of the companies themselves, however, that has given international scope to the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative.

As one executive noted: "You can't retrofit a ship with hardware that won't be with the ship when the ship leaves Alaska."

As a result, new technologies are going to mean a cleaner environment wherever the foreign-flagged vessels travel.

Cruise executives say changes were in the works before they came under pressure but also concede that public scrutiny in Alaska has accelerated their plans.

This year, three cruise ships Holland America's Zaandam and Statendam, and Celebrity Cruises' Mercury were certified by the Coast Guard as meeting treatment standards stringent enough to allow wastewater discharge anywhere. Other ships are expected to follow that lead next year.

"It is interesting to note that at least four different treatment methods are being strenuously tested or evaluated," says a statement from the cruise ship association. "It is possible that the adoption of new technology by the cruise industry will fundamentally change wastewater treatment methods for the entire maritime community."

Holland America announced Thursday that it has ordered five new ships with gas turbine technology, at an additional cost of $8 million per ship. This year, Celebrity's Infinity and Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas were the first cruise ships equipped with gas turbines to visit Alaska. The technology, which burns cleaner fuels, dramatically reduces visible smokestack emissions.

Holland America said it might follow Princess Cruises' lead in plugging into shoreside power while docked in Juneau.

Still unresolved

As the Cruise Ship Initiative packs up, there are still outstanding issues.

From the beginning, the industry has contended that its wastewater discharges have had no environmental impact. A science panel called together by the initiative has given some support for that view, estimating that discharges from a moving cruise ship are diluted almost immediately by a factor of at least 12,000.

"That is information that should reassure the public," said Dean Brown, chairman of the cruise ship association. "There really isn't any impact at this point."

But DEC officials said it's premature to reach that conclusion.

And citizen activist Cohen said it doesn't matter what the dilution factor is. If a school of fish or seaweed that's later harvested is right at the point of discharge, dilution theories are of no comfort, he said. There's also the possibility of multiple ships discharging in the same spot, he said.

Cohen said standards shouldn't be relaxed because some cruise ships already have proved they're achievable. And Chip Thoma of the Alaska Conservation Alliance called for no-discharge zones to protect whales.

But Gerhard of the Southeast Conference expressed concern that expensive solutions affecting all marine transportation in the region could be mandated before there is scientific evidence of an environmental threat.

Meanwhile, Knowles has asked the EPA to look into restricting cruise ship discharges outside of Alaska. This year, 13 of 23 large ships simply left the Inside Passage in order to discharge wastewater without Coast Guard oversight.

"We believe that this is a temporary operation for these ships until new technology is installed," Knowles wrote to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. "But, since such discharges are legal under existing law, Alaskans are concerned that the continuous discharge of wastewater with high levels of contamination may result in unintended impacts that could harm marine life."

*****

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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