WASHINGTON -- Congress has given final approval to a bill regulating the cruise ship industry that is regarded by environmentalists as a milestone in curbing pollution in the waters of Southeast Alaska.
The measure, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, was attached to the final wrapup appropriations bill approved by both the House and Senate Friday before lawmakers adjourned for the year. President Clinton is expected to sign the omnibus bill.
The legislation reflects a deal hammered out earlier this fall by Murkowski, state and federal officials, and cruise ship industry representatives. It was held up because Congress delayed final action on the appropriations measure until the winner of the presidential election was determined.
The bill establishes new restrictions on wastewater discharges, requires the U.S. Coast Guard to carry out sampling and testing programs of marine discharges, and authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set a standard for graywater discharges for the first time. The bill bars the discharge of untreated sewage anywhere in Alaska waters, and bans discharge of treated sewage and untreated graywater, or sink and shower water, within a mile of shore or while a ship is at rest.
The Coast Guard could make exceptions after consulting with state officials. If that is the case, the cruise ship companies would have to provide test results showing the discharges meet certain standards, including Alaska law on fecal coliform counts in seafood processing operations.
The state also could ask the EPA to set aside environmentally sensistive areas where no discharges would be allowed.
"This clearly means a coming together on an issue of some uniqueness," Murkowski said Friday. "Due to the geography of Alaska and the huge ships sailing in the inland waters, we had to come up with a plan that is fair and equitable."
Environmentalists hailed the measure.
Gershon Cohen of Haines, a representative of the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters who helped craft the final agreement, said it represents "a major step forward in getting control back over the quality of the waters of Alaska."
Dean Brown, chairman of the NorthWest CruiseShip Association, endorsed the bill.
In a letter to Gov. Tony Knowles earlier this month, Brown said, "We share your goal to protect and preserve Alaska's unique and spectacular marine environment. We accept our responsibilities and pledge to work in partnership with the state of Alaska and the U.S. Coast Guard toward achieving that goal."
Knowles had urged the Alaska congressional delegation to pass the bill before adjournment.
"We had some differences of opinion at different times," Murkowski said. "I'd like to think we have resolved them."
Among the criticisms were that EPA would be stripped of its traditional enforcement powers, with greater authority given to the Coast Guard.
Murkowski disputed this idea, saying, "We are adding a role for the Coast Guard that they are uniquely equipped to handle."
Of the hard-fought compromise, Murkowski said, "Everyone seems fairly pleased with it. It is not in the industry's interest to violate this new federal law."