Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Assembly: Put Ocean Rangers under DEC

 

March 12, 2020 | View PDF



The Haines Borough Assembly voted unanimously to send a letter to the Alaska Municipal League in support of a bill that would eliminate the state’s Ocean Ranger program and give the Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to set up a replacement oversight program through regulation.

The bill would eliminate on-board marine engineers (called Ocean Rangers) who observe health, safety and wastewater treatment and discharge operations. The Department of Environmental Conservation has said it would instead conduct start-of-season inspections for cruise ships and unannounced inspections throughout the season.

During discussion of the vote, assembly members expressed belief that this position aligned with the Alaska Municipal League’s stance on the bill. However, this does not appear to be the case.

The Alaska Municipal League is soliciting letters from municipalities as it works to provide input to the legislature on the bill. The municipal league’s current position, outlined in a letter submitted to the co-chairs of the House State Affairs Committee on March 2, says that although members opposed the original draft of the legislation, there is less consensus about the revised version.

The Alaska Municipal League said that, in general, members are “concerned about oversight of the industry’s discharge and compliance with state regulations. At the heart of this is an interest in and priority attached to waters upon which they depend for healthy fisheries, tourism, subsistence and recreation. There remains an interest in the value of the Ocean Rangers, even as we appreciate the additional oversight and compliance that DEC describes (in the updated bill).”

The Alaska Municipal League expressed interest in provisions relating to wastewater treatment in municipalities serving the cruise industry. However, the organization said it had concerns that any provisions mandating new levels of treatment would require additional, unplanned costs for municipalities.

At press time, it was unclear whether the Haines assembly intended to vote in favor of the bill or the Alaska Municipal League’s position.

At the assembly meeting, borough manager Debra Schnabel said the bill is still evolving but in its current form it includes a provision allowing DEC to create a grant or loan program using passenger fees to support improvements to shore-based wastewater treatment facilities in communities serving cruise ship passengers. She said this could benefit Haines, depending on the outcome of the legislation.

Last year, the assembly passed a resolution opposing repeal of the Ocean Ranger program without offering an alternative, Schnabel said. Now that the bill is offering an alternative to the program and talking about sharing benefits with municipalities, the assembly has the opportunity to offer feedback on the bill and make recommendations, she said.

Haines resident Gershon Cohen, who was involved in passage of the original 2006 ballot initiative that created the Ocean Ranger program, expressed doubts about the legislation in its current form. “The bill says (the Department of Environmental Conservation) may adopt regulations at some point in the future, and DEC staff may perform inspections, but DEC staff will not be Coast Guard licensed marine engineers and will not be on the ships while underway, when most of the felony dumping incidents have occurred over the years.”

“The administration appears to be teasing municipalities into supporting the bill by suggesting funds could be available to upgrade land-based sewage treatment systems, but as Juneau found out a year ago, such expenditures would almost certainly be struck down under the tonnage clause of the U.S. Constitution,” he said.

Ketchikan recently voted to send a letter asking the state to reinstate the Ocean Ranger program despite this year’s edits to the legislation. According to Ketchikan radio station KRBD, officials in Ketchikan “are skeptical that an industry-backed bill currently making its way through the state legislature would serve the same function as the Ocean Ranger program.”

At the assembly meeting, members expressed reluctance to take a strong position on the bill and its particulars while the legislative process is still unfolding.

“A mildly written, mildly supportive letter from staff is a good compromise. We don’t even know what we’re embracing so we don’t want to embrace it too strongly,” assembly member Brenda Josephson said.

Assembly member Gabe Thomas said he wished the borough had a lobbyist to explain the particulars of the bill before lending their support.

“We will continue to watch future changes to the bill in case we need to write another letter,” Mayor Jan Hill said.

The Ocean Rangers bill had two hearings in the House State Affairs Committee and a single hearing in the Senate Resources Committee in mid-February. The legislature has not taken action on the bill since then.

 
 

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