February 28, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 8

Legislature loosens water regs

Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott lamented recent action by the Alaska Legislature to loosen restrictions on cruise ship dumping in state waters.

“I lobbied and lobbied and lobbied and lobbied. I’m just sick about it,” Scott said last week after the state Senate voted 15-5 for the bill that would roll back wastewater treatment requirements of the 2006 cruise ship initiative approved by voters statewide.

The bill is expected to be signed by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, whose administration spearheaded the change.

Scott said her concerns included that a measure approved by voters statewide went to a final vote in the legislature after only three committee hearings. “I told the governor to slow this down. It’s happening way too fast.”

Larry Hartig, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, characterized the change as aligning discharge regulations for cruise ships with ones for mixing zones elsewhere, where wastewater can be diluted into the water.

Some advocates of the changes say the regulations would put cruise ships on par with municipalities like Haines, which are allowed to exceed standards “at the end of the pipe,” where their sewage treatment outflow pipes meet tidewater.

Scott, however, said the situations aren’t comparable, as the Haines Borough is required to take regular samples of water near the outflow pipes and also test the sea floor at the end of the sewage outflow pipe for contaminants. “Our mixing zones are tested. Now we’re going to have floating mixing zones and how do you test those?” Scott said.

Scott also mentioned the scale of the potential dumping. “There are more than a million cruise ship passengers per year. We’re dumping effluent from more people into our waters than live in the entire state of Alaska.”

Michelle Bonnet Hale, DEC’s director of the Division of Water, said in an interview this week that state standards take bioaccumulation into account.

Water treatment aboard the 17 large cruise ships allowed to discharge in Alaska results in a cleaner product than that discharged into the ocean by any town in Alaska, Bonnet Hale said. The volume of the total discharge from all 17 ships on an average day is less the volume from the city of Juneau in a single day, she said.

Under the new rules, ships will be required to take samples at the point of discharge. Bottom or “benthic” sampling for accumulation of pollutants like copper in cruise ship zones is unnecessary as copper is dissolved in ocean water, DEC’s Hale said.

For example, after dilution in a mixing zone, concentrations of copper from a ship are at one one-thousandth the concentration that occurs naturally, she said. “There isn’t an opportunity to bioaccumulate. It’s not like there are solid copper particles that are drifting down to the bottom.”

Gillnet fisherman Norman Hughes of Haines also said he was concerned that ships would discharge directly into the same water column where salmon swim.

“This doesn’t give (ships) any incentive to do better. We’ve done years and years of marketing the pristine environment of our fish. I don’t want buyers to start saying, ‘The market went soft because salmon was perceived to be tainted.’ We’re on top of our game. We need a decade of good seasons to recover from the ’90s.”

Parnell’s change eliminates a requirement of the cruise ship initiative that ships meet water quality standards at the point of discharge.

The legislature in 2009 passed legislation that temporarily allowed cruise ships to have dilution “mixing zones” while a science advisory panel investigated whether ships could meet water quality standards. The group found last year that no advanced systems aboard ships currently could meet the standards for ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc.

The panel said that with mixing zones, cruise ships could meet water quality standards “within seconds.” Panel member and marine ecologist Michelle Ridgway of Juneau testified against the bill, saying she disagreed with some of the group’s findings.

The panel had been scheduled to continue working on the issue. Parnell’s signature will end the group’s work.

State Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who represents Haines, voted for the final version of the bill in the Senate. Stedman had earlier supported a bill by Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, that would have maintained the initiative’s standards but given the cruise industry until 2020 to meet them.

Stedman did not respond to a request for comment at press time Wednesday.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, who represents Haines in the state House of Representatives, voted against the bill (HB80) in that chamber. In an interview, he said he wanted ships to strive for the best available technology.

“Moving mixing zones are immeasurable and unenforceable,” Kreiss Tomkins said. “The industry has made quantum leaps in waste water treatment since passage of the initiative, but I’m concerned this goes too far the other way.”