The Alaska Cruise Association has been rallying support around the state to loosen water pollution standards set in the 2006 cruise ship initiative approved by Alaska voters.
According to John Binkley, association president, the cruisers want to delete just these five words from the water pollution part of the cruise ship law: "at the point of discharge." Gershon Cohen, cosponsor and lead campaigner for the initiative, says he'll fight that deletion with all the means he can muster.
It all boils down to copper and ammonia.
The cruise ship law required vessels to meet Alaska water quality standards at the point of discharge - in other words, straight out of the pipe - rather than define a zone where the ships' pollutants can be diluted before they are measured.
That approach, known as a mixing zone, is commonplace throughout the United States; a Reagan era amendment to the Clean Water Act of 1972 provides for it. The cruise ship initiative deliberately did not. Backers wanted the initiative to stand by the spirit of the Clean Water Act, which called for no pollution discharges into navigable U.S. waters by 1985.
In 2008, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation allowed the cruise industry a two-year grace period to meet end-of-pipe numbers for four effluents: copper, ammonia, nickel and zinc.
Even with that leeway, the DEC reported about 40 violations in 2008, most of them for ammonia.
Standards too tough?
Cruise lines say they cannot meet the 2010 standards for copper and ammonia without mixing zones. The technology either doesn't exist or isn't ready for shipboard application.
Denise Koch, who heads the cruise ship program for DEC, said that's the agency's belief as well, although they are still researching the matter.
Further, Binkley said, the stricter standards are not necessary - cruise ship discharge is much cleaner than anything poured into Alaska waters from Ketchikan to Anchorage, a fact acknowledged by Cohen and confirmed by DEC.
Cohen believes there is technology that would enable cruise ships to meet the strict standards for both copper and ammonia, but that the cruise lines prefer to expend their energy in amending the law rather than using the grace period to achieve compliance.
Pressure pays off
Alaskans can take heart in this fight, because the battle here has produced cleaner cruising in Alaska and around the world. Felony convictions, state law and the 2006 initiative got the industry's attention and forced substantial changes.
The industry has accepted those changes with varying attitudes, from graceful to grudging, but there's no question greener cruising is the norm.
Lawmakers should amend the initiative law to allow DEC a little latitude on the two pollutants still at issue. That could be mixing zones - or it could be more time to look at what technology is available and how well it works on ships, so the state can balance the costs of retrofitting against whatever gain it produces for the environment.
That latitude shouldn't be open-ended, though. As wastewater treatment improves, the practical argument for grace periods and mixing zones diminishes. 1985 was not realistic for the no-pollution goal, but the goal is still worthy.
We won't get closer to that goal without continued pressure. DEC must stay abreast of new technologies, and lawmakers must be willing to make cruise ships - not to mention shore-based dischargers - use those technologies when it makes sense to do so.
No other changes
As for the rest of the cruise ship law, it should stand. Lawmakers should make clear that any changes are limited to carefully crafted relief on a minor pollutant or two. Cruise taxes, the ocean ranger program and permit requirements should not be up for amendment.
The initiative wasn't writ in stone. Lawmakers can loosen the letter of the commandments and maintain the spirit - which is to protect Alaska waters.