The Alaska Legislature is considering a revised version of a bill that would eliminate the state’s Ocean Ranger program and give the Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to set up an oversight program through regulation. 

The Alaska Municipal League has requested that Haines submit comments about the bill as a community impacted by cruise lines activity, borough manager Debra Schnabel said in a memo addressed to the assembly. Schnabel presented the assembly with several possible actions including drafting a letter or resolution in support of or opposition to the bill. The item had been on the agenda for Tuesday’s canceled assembly meeting and will likely be taken up at the next scheduled meeting on March 10.

Approved as part of a 2006 ballot initiative, the Ocean Ranger program requires the presence of a “state-employed marine engineer (ocean ranger) licensed by the Coast Guard to observe health, safety and wastewater treatment and discharge operations” on large cruise ships. The ballot initiative implemented a $4 per passenger fee to support program costs.

During the 2019 legislative session, at the request of the governor’s administration, Senate Bill 70 and its companion, House Bill 74, were introduced to repeal the program. The governor’s proposed repeal of the Ocean Ranger program proved unpopular. Communities and individuals throughout the state wrote letters of opposition. Last May, the Haines assembly at the time passed a resolution “fully (supporting) the Ocean Ranger program, and strongly (opposing) legislative actions that would repeal the Ocean Ranger program.”

Neither the Senate nor the House took action on the bill during the last legislative session, leaving the program in state law. However, the governor effectively shut down the program when he vetoed funding for it from the state’s operating budget last summer.

Earlier this month, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) introduced a revised version of the bill that would repeal the Ocean Ranger program and replace it with DEC regulations that would oversee the cruise ship industry. Other provisions in the revised bill include: establishing a new, simplified fee structure including a discount to incentivize the installation of high tech monitoring systems on ships; repealing citizen watchdog provisions; and giving DEC the ability to create a grant or loan program with passenger fees to support improvements to shore-based wastewater treatment facilities in communities serving cruise ship passengers.

During a hearing on Senate Bill 70 before the Senate Resources Committee, Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Jason Brune said that once the bill is passed, the department plans to make regulatory changes to require start-of-season inspections for cruise ships and unannounced inspections throughout the season. DEC will hire four new staff to carry out the inspections, he said. 

The Ocean Ranger program is outdated and overly prescriptive, Brune said. Many industries regulated by DEC are not subject to 24/7 monitoring. Leaving the specifics of regulation to the department’s discretion allows for more flexibility, making it possible for monitoring programs to change with the times, he argues.

Brune said the Ocean Ranger program was not an efficient use of funds, estimating that at least $1 million of the program’s $3.5 million budget was spent on accommodations aboard cruise ships for the program’s 22 ocean rangers.

Senator Jesse Kiehl expressed concern that the bill, in its present state, would repeal concrete regulations and leave any future regulation of the cruise ship industry to the discretion of the DEC commissioner. “Commissioner (Brune) described a lot of things he wanted to put into the program that sounded good.The question is always what might the next commissioner whose identity we don’t know do with the program.” 

Kiehl said he thinks there’s room to work toward a compromise even though the bill in its current form “is a little squishy…there’s certainly room to modernize the (Ocean Ranger) program from the original ballot initiative, but there needs to be some side boards.” 

Ocean rangers are trained observers but enforcement falls to DEC staff. At present, DEC staff check on cruise lines by looking through ship discharge records. “One of the frustrations I’ve heard from frontline staff at DEC is that these records present a massive data dump,” Kiehl said. 

“The technology exists to have a computer tell you how much was pumped out at which locations,” Kiehl said. Having an electronic monitoring system in ships connected to sensors on valves could tell DEC “what they need to know without having to crunch through spreadsheets.” DEC would need to back up these systems with physical inspections to make sure monitoring systems were properly installed and functioning, he said.

While Kiehl sees room to update the program, “because this was a voter initiative, we ought to keep more of what the voters put into law in a modernized version,” he said. Kiehl said he has concerns about repealing elements like the citizen watchdog provision even though no one has put this provision to use in the 14 years since the ballot initiative was passed. It never hurts to have more eyes on a situation, and without Ocean Rangers on ships, that function is even more important, he said. 

Kiehl spoke positively of DEC’s proposal to use a portion of funds that would have previously gone toward the Ocean Ranger program to improve wastewater treatment in communities serving the cruise ship industry. 

Wastewater treatment facilities in cruise ship destinations are often overloaded during cruise ship season when thousands of passengers come ashore, Brune said during the Senate hearing. Giving communities in Southeast the opportunity to upgrade wastewater systems through a revolving loan fund or other similar mechanism could have a substantial environmental impact, he said. 

Kiehl said the grant or loan program will likely be shaped by what will pass constitutional muster, referencing a recent lawsuit in Juneau over misuse of commercial passenger vessel tax dollars. For example, grants could come with the requirement that communities remove wastewater from ships and treat it at upgraded onshore facilities, he said. If the bill passes and DEC implements the program, communities will need to determine whether the terms are worth it, Kiehl said.

Senate Bill 70 and its companion have a better chance of passing this year than last, Kiehl said. He said lawmakers have been having conversations about potential changes to the program. At the Senate hearing, Brune said he would be open to compromises like amending the bill to include reporting requirements for DEC.

As cruise ship season approaches, it may put pressure on legislators to reach a compromise with the executive branch. “I think another season of not putting eyes on (cruise ship) vessels would be a real problem,” Kiehl said. Leaving the current program in place could result in a second fiscal year without cruise ship monitoring if the governor chooses to veto Ocean Ranger funding once again.