Critics seek champion to kill cruise pollution law

'HARD SELL': Legislators not lining up yet to back changes.

February 9, 2009 

The Alaska cruise industry and its supporters in some coastal communities are pleading with legislators this winter to abolish a strict water-pollution rule approved by voters in 2006 as part of an ambitious ramp-up of state oversight of the industry.

But so far, they're having trouble getting traction in Juneau.

After weeks of knocking on doors in the Capitol, the cruise industry still needs its legislative champion.

Some legislators see the absence of a bill as a sign that their colleagues are nervous about messing around with a voter-enacted law. Besides requiring cruise ships to meet tougher pollution standards, the new law put new taxes, fees and environmental monitoring on the industry.

To House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, revising the pollution rule seems premature because the cruise lines have until next year to comply.

"It's kind of a hard sell," she said.

But some Republican leaders expect a bill to be introduced soon.

"I don't think people are afraid to touch the initiative," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski. He said the pollution rule received much less public attention than other parts of the law when it was being debated in 2006 in a costly ballot measure campaign. To him, it appears to be too punitive.

He's heard that legislators might be working on draft legislation. But he hasn't seen anything yet.

milestone law

This year's legislative session is the first opportunity for the cruise industry to get substantial revisions to the 2006 law.

The cruise lines spent more than $1 million on advertising to defeat the initiative. They said the industry had reformed itself after a few high-profile criminal pollution convictions, spending millions to install advanced water treatment systems in the first part of the decade. They cautioned the law would unfairly target an important and growing industry and discourage tourists from visiting or spending money in Alaska.

But voters approved the law by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

In the first two years after the law's passage, cruise visitation did not decline and the cruise law generated more than $100 million in state tax revenue. Nearly $20 million was distributed to port cities to spend on cruise-related infrastructure projects, according to the Alaska Department of Revenue.

This year, the cruise industry is facing a substantial economic downturn. Visitation might decline this year, and one large ship has been diverted from Alaska next year, but the industry isn't pushing a tax repeal.

Here's what the industry says it does want: The Legislature should remove the portion of the cruise law that set a higher standard for wastewater from cruise ships than for any other industry in the state.

The law bans the cruise lines from applying for state permission to use mixing zones. A mixing zone is a stretch of water in which pollution discharges are allowed to exceed the state's water-quality standards. They are used by sewage plants, mines, seafood plants and other industries to dilute their discharges. The mixing ban for cruise lines goes into effect next year.

The ban is a milestone that should be emulated by other industries, the cruise law's proponents say. It's the first industry-wide mixing-zone ban in the country, said Gershon Cohen of Haines, one of the initiative sponsors.

"It's not even close to being a level playing field," said John Binkley, who heads the Alaska Cruise Association, which works on behalf of the cruise lines in Alaska's port communities.

The cruise lines and some communities see the environmental rule as a potential nightmare. Preliminary testing by state and federal regulators last summer showed that at least some ships visiting Alaska will not be able to comply with their pollution permits without a mixing zone, unless they find a new technology to remove two pollutants, copper and ammonia, regulators say.

A likely source of the copper is water pipes. "We have the same dilemma on ships that people have in their homes," Binkley said.

The source of ammonia is urine. The irony is that the ships' ammonia concentrations would be much lower if the ships conserved less water. The ships use ultra-low-flow toilets to save water, he said.

PORT TOWNS WEIGH IN

Who supports the proposed changes besides the cruise lines?

It's mainly a mix of business and tourism trade groups, as well as a few city councils: Juneau's, Ketchikan's, Seward's and Whittier's. The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce lists the revision as one of its top five legislative priorities this year.

"Hopefully, someone will pick it up soon," said Wayne Stevens, the state chamber's president.

"I think everybody is very cautious. ... They don't want to be perceived as weakening the initiative," he said.

What are state regulators saying? So far, they aren't asserting any opinions other than saying there doesn't seem to be a technology the ships can install right now to comply with the new rule. The state is planning to host a scientific meeting soon to discuss possible technology that could be developed and installed on the ships by next year.

What are environmental groups saying? So far, the cruise ship issue is not a priority for the Alaska Conservation Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups around the state. However, the alliance -- which, interestingly, shares a lobbyist with the cruise association -- said it will be tracking any potential legislation.

The sponsors of the cruise law are fighting any changes to the discharge rule. They sent a letter to all lawmakers this week, saying the state has given the cruise lines ample opportunity to clean up their discharges.

"If the cruise industry wants decisions to be based on science (as they claim) they should cooperate with DEC's technology evaluation process ... rather than working to repeal them before the department's scientific evaluation has been completed," the letter said.

The cruise industry is cooperating, Binkley responded.

He said one of the cruise lines is researching how to reduce ammonia concentrations. The cruise line is also looking at how much it could reduce copper concentrations simply by changing where the ships buy their water, he said.

But he doubts that using a mixing zone would be harmful -- otherwise, why would the state allow other industries to use them, he said.

"Is it really doing any harm?" he said. "That should be the first question. Then, look at the technology."

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.

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