The Alaska Legislature has given cruise ships a chance to delay water discharge requirements put in place three years ago by a citizens initiative. Clean water advocates hope the opportunity is short-lived.
Waivers could be in place through 2015 unless technology is available for vessels to meet standards. A sponsor of the 2006 initiative, Gershon Cohen of Haines, said that could happen well before the new law allowing waivers expires.
Alaska voters in 2006 approved a cruise ship initiative, fought by the industry, that established a $50 passenger head tax and an "Ocean Ranger" program to monitor safety, environmental compliance and sanitation.
The measure also established wastewater dumping regulations that require cruise ships to meet state water quality standards. The measure applied to treatment of a ship's "gray water," from showers, sinks, washing machines and galleys, and "black water," from toilets.
Critics said the requirement was tougher than discharges from shore-based treatment facilities such as mines, municipal sewage plants and seafood processors, which meet standards after the discharge has become diluted.
Vessels have had particular difficulty in meeting the standard for ammonia and three metals: copper, nickel and zinc.
Vessels operating in Alaska waters can avoid the regulations simply by moving three miles away from state coastline into federal waters. In some cases, because of islands, that means traveling 12 miles from the mainland. That means less time for tourists and crew members to spend money in ports.
House Bill 134, sponsored by Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, started out as a measure that would have allowed ships to dump treated water in mixing zones, diluting discharge before water quality measurements were made.
As originally written, vessels could have applied for waivers indefinitely until technology was available to meet the standards.
The final version of the bill, which has not yet reached the desk of Gov. Sarah Palin, takes it off the books in 2015. Cruise ships will still be required to meet the water standard at the point of discharge. Applications for new waivers could be denied if other vessels have demonstrated they can meet the standards, Cohen said.
More than 800 samples were taken last year from about 18 cruise ships, Cohen said.
"One-third of the time they were within the limits using their existing technology," he said. "That proves they are extremely close to meeting all the standards all the time."
If one company's vessels meet the standards, he said, others will be required to do at least as well.
Former state Sen. John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, said cruise lines would be happy to adopt affordable new technology to meet the standards if it were available.
"There's nothing dependable that gets us to those levels," he said. "Occasionally we hit them, but we're not sure why there are anomalies in the system."
Binkley said the new law will give regulators considering waivers some flexibility in deciding what is acceptable.