The State of Alaska has been steadily weakening citizen-supported regulations on cruise ships. Now some ships are allowed to discharge wastewater while in port, concentrating discharge water in the harbors and channels where people live, work, and play.
Alaskans love visitors. We enjoy showcasing our state’s abundance of wildlife, pristine waters and scenic grandeur. And the one billion dollars that the industry pumps into the Southeast Alaska doesn’t hurt either. In the summer, more than half our visitors - around one million people - come to Alaska on cruise ships. With the proper safeguards, tourism can be an important part of our economy without compromising the clean water and wild places that people come here to experience. In 2006 Alaska voters passed Ballot Measure 2 by a solid margin. It required cruise ships treat their wastewater to meet water quality standards before they discharge it into the ocean. The solution seemed like a fair way for ships to continue maintaining operations while protecting the waters Alaskans depend on for commerce, recreation and our way of life.
But the state since then has tried to circumvent the will of the voters. In 2007, Gov. Sarah Palin appointed Larry Hartig, a former mining industry lawyer, as Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. Once appointed, he worked tirelessly to roll back this citizen-supported initiative. As a result, in the blink of an eye, the Alaska Legislature passed HB 80, which gutted the high standards set for cruise ships in 2006 and put our waters at risk.
In issuing the 2014 General Permit, DEC's Division of Water further weakened the voter-approved standards by redefining "best available wastewater treatment technology" to include systems that were unable to meet Ballot Measure 2 standards.
The 2014 General Permit does not cover any particular ship, but instead lays out the terms and conditions that a ship must satisfy to discharge in all marine waters in Alaska. Here’s how it works: Before a cruise ship may dump its wastewater, it files a Notice of Intent that allows DEC to determine whether a particular ship qualifies for a mixing zone. A mixing zone allows discharges to exceed water quality standards beyond the point of discharge. In 2015, of the 32 large cruise ships registered to operate in Alaska waters, DEC authorized 18 vessels to discharge millions of gallons of treated sewage in Alaska waters, including when ships were tied up at the docks in Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, and other ports throughout Southeast.
As the 2016 cruise ship season starts, the public doesn’t know how many ships will be dumping in Alaska waters or where because DEC hasn’t processed all of the Notices of Intent filed by the cruise ship industry. Also troublesome is that DEC has not yet reviewed water-sampling data from last year’s use of the General Permit. All cruise lines with vessels that were authorized to discharge at port in 2015 are required to collect water sampling data, but DEC has not yet reviewed that data or made recommendations on how to improve monitoring and water quality data collection from the cruise ships. The department says they hope to have those questions answered by the end of June, well into the 2016 cruise ship season.
Inside Passage Waterkeeper will keep tabs on DEC's efforts and share what we find out as the summer season progresses. Let us know if you see anything interesting!