Public, Scientists Disagree On Cruise Ship Wastewater

A bill that would relax the wastewater standards placed on cruise ships by Alaska voters is on the fast track in the Senate.

The Senate Resources committee took the first public testimony on Senate Bill 29 last Friday (1-25-13). Proponents of the bill advocated for the lower standards, saying that the current law unfairly puts ships under tighter rules than Alaskan communities. The leading opponent of the bill was a marine ecologist, who was dissenting from her colleagues on the science advisory panel that studies cruise ship wastewater.

Gov. Parnell is putting his weight behind SB29 to expedite permitting for cruise lines by this summer.

Karla Hart, with Alaska Community Action on Toxics, urged the Senate Resources committee to slow down.

“The risk of quick action on your part is that you’ll betray the voters of Alaska, who voted to have this higher standard of clean water.”

Hart reminded the committee that the amount of discharge was significant. More people visit Alaska on cruise ships each summer than live in the state. She did not think leveling cruise ship discharge with local communities made sense.

“If an Alaska community doesn’t meet discharge standards, it’s in our front yard. We know where it comes from. We know who’s responsible, and we have to clean it up. Ships discharge anywhere, so remote areas that you might go to for subsistence harvests or commercial fishing that you might go to because you think they are clean, because they are far away from any apparent discharge, could be getting a pretty substantial burden over time, because a lot of these things are heavy metals that bioaccumulate.”

Alaska voters in 2006 passed the statewide Cruise Ship Initiative, which set wastewater standards “at the point of discharge.” The Department of Environmental Conservation subsequently granted cruise lines temporary relief from these requirements, to allow them time to install the necessary treatment systems.

Putting ships on a different standard than Alaskan communities was a major argument against the initiative. John Kimmel, with Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska told the committee that Senate Bill 29 would correct a flaw in the law that voters adopted.

“The cruise ships really need to be held to the same standard as everyone else. The original initiative held them to a higher standard than everyone else. This fix is going to make it more fair for the cruise lines.”

A variation of this theme has made it to the table from a different direction: The Alaska Cruise Ship Wastewater Science Advisory Panel, in a preliminary report, says that many ships now meet or exceed Alaska water standards, except for a few key heavy metals, like copper. The report concludes that there would be little, if any, environmental benefit to requiring cruise ships to adopt additional treatment methods in the future.

The report gave advocates of the cruise industry an opening to talk about science. This is Andy Rodgers, the deputy director of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce. He testified that his organization has now adopted a position “Advocating for legislation and regulations that are based on sound science, as opposed to a precautionary method.”

And this is Bob Janes, a tour operator from Juneau.

“I am not a scientist, but I think this subject is all about science.”

But at least one bona fide scientist who testified before the Senate Resources committee disagreed with the conclusions of the Science Advisory Panel – which she herself sits on. Michelle Ridgeway, a marine ecologist in Juneau, believes the other members of the panel underestimate the potential harm from the consistent discharge of heavy metals.

“Quite frankly, I think we’ll be appalled by the long-term degradation to the marine ecosystem if we allow this to go forward in this form.”

Ridgeway thinks applying rules for shore-base treatment plants – which allow for mixing zones – to cruise ships will ultimately create a kind of Sophie’s choice for the state.

“I believe it will be exceedingly excruciatingly difficult for Alaskans to concur on where it is between a 0 to 3 nautical mile area – our state waters – that we find it’s acceptable for vessels to discharge water that contains copper, zinc, nickel, and ammonia at levels that are known to be acutely and chronically toxic to marine life that we all depend on.”

Read an open letter from Michelle Ridgeway to DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig.

Chip Thoma, president of Responsible Cruising in Alaska, said it was his organization’s preference that ships discharge all waste in federal waters. He urged the committee to maintain the water quality standards set by voters, saying it was likely that much of the copper contamination would eventually be reduced as ships modernized with the use of flexible plastic plumbing.

Senate Resources chair Cathy Giessel scheduled another hearing on SB29 for Monday afternoon, January 28, at which she invited members to propose amendments. A companion bill in the House, HB 80, was heard in that body’s Resources Committee on Monday afternoon as well.

Listen to the full story

Download Audio

Robert Woolsey is the news director at KCAW in Sitka.

Previous articleTongass Second Growth Wood Guide
Next articleWhat’s Next for the Post Meltdown Economy?