Wastewater Upgrades a Focus in Debate Over Cruise Ship Bill

A piece of legislation that would roll back discharge regulations on cruise ships could appear on the Senate floor as early as next week. It’s already passed in the House, and today the Senate finance committee invited the public to comment on it.

The testimony lasted for more than two hours, even though the committee had planned to meet for only 90 minutes. And for the most part, the people who spoke expressed concern that the cruise ship wastewater bill could damage the marine environment. Here’s Bernhard Richert, a resident of Anchorage.

”I guess I’m a little perplexed right now that we would risk changing the perception of purity and environmental beauty,” Richert said.

The bill he’s talking about would scrap a requirement that cruise ships meet stricter water standards by 2016. Under a rule put in place by a 2006 citizens’ initiative, vessels would eventually have to make sure they’re not releasing an excess of ammonia or copper at the point of discharge. This bill would let them release waste into mixing zones instead, like ferries or municipal treatment plants. Advocates of the bill say that it’s unfair for cruise ships to be held to a different standard, and they say that cruise ships are already using advanced wastewater treatment technology.

John Binkley is the president of the Alaska Cruise Association, and spoke in support of the bill.

”The ballot initiative moved the bar to a different level that was unattainable,” Binkley said.

He cited a report issued by a state panel of engineers, scientists, and fishing and cruise industry representatives that there wasn’t evidence to prove that further technological upgrades would provide “significant environmental benefit.”

But critics of the bill took issue with that statement. Chip Thoma was invited to testify on behalf of Alaskans for Responsible Cruising, and he says that most of the cruise fleet is already complying with the stricter discharge requirements.

”It’s not impossible, because we’re meeting them,” Thoma said.

Questions were also raised about the impact that copper levels have on salmon health and migration. Sen. Anna Fairclough, a Republican from Eagle River, asked that the Department of Fish and Game weigh in on the bill before it moves to the Senate floor.

”We’ve heard several people testify with concerns about subsistence fishing and habitat, and I know that Fish and Game is endeavoring to start some research specific on king salmon runs and how our fish are moving in and out of the streams,” Fairclough  said.

In a follow-up interview, Fairclough says that getting Fish and Game’s input shouldn’t have an effect on the speed at which the bill moves through committee.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has previously stated that they would like to see action on the bill by February 15, so they can begin work on their discharge permits.

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