There's been a strange turn of events at the state's cruise ship wastewater treatment science advisory panel. That's the newly formed group that will advise the Department of Environmental Conservation on how the ships can best meet strict pollution discharge limits by 2015. The panel will have 11 members, with a cruise industry representative and experts in naval architecture, marine engineering and wastewater treatment. In a letter of Dec. 23, 2009, Lynn Kent of the DEC invited environmental activist Gershon Cohen to join the advisory panel. Cohen sponsored the successful 2006 cruise ship initiative that imposed a passenger head tax, stringent wastewater discharge limits and the Ocean Ranger program to monitor cruise ship compliance.
She wrote that the panel "will benefit greatly from your experience with cruise ship wastewater regulation and legislation."
In a phone call of Jan. 16, 2010, DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig disinvited Cohen. According to Cohen, Hartig said he'd thought it over and decided Cohen was too much of an advocate to serve on a science panel that advises DEC about the best available wastewater technologies and their economic feasibility.
Why did the state change its mind about Cohen in less than a month? It's not as if he was a stranger to DEC.
John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, said Monday "we never requested to remove Gershon" but did raise concerns about his political agenda.
Steve Hites of the Alaska Alliance for Cruise Travel told the Alaska Public Radio Network that Cohen has "an absolute agenda" and so doesn't belong on what's designed to be an independent panel to advise DEC.
Hartig said Tuesday that cruise industry advocates have no veto power but that he felt they had a point about Cohen's agenda. He also said DEC needs to do a wider search for the nongovernmental organization member of the panel. Cohen had been the only applicant.
It's hard to imagine a more qualified applicant. He stands out among Alaska environmentalists for his thorough knowledge of cruise ship wastewater issues.
Of course Cohen has an agenda. So does the cruise industry panel member. So does the panel representative for Alaska's fisheries. But judging by the people named so far, this panel has enough scientific and engineering firepower to keep anyone's agenda in perspective.
Cohen likely would push for the best available technology, period, and as soon as possible. It's unlikely he'd get everything he wanted; he's already been frustrated by DEC's granting the industry an extension until 2015 to meet some of the strict discharge limits the initiative called for -- an extension that's reasonable given cruise ships' compliance with most limits.
But that informed push and perspective would be his contribution to the work. One of the primary reasons Alaska cruising may well be the world's cleanest is because activists like Cohen have fought for it. The industry may not welcome him -- but that's no reason for the state to throw him off the panel.
BOTTOM LINE: DEC was wrong to leave longtime activist off advisory panel.