Our View: Cruise ship bill needs a cold, hard look - not a rush job

February 9, 2013 

Cruise ship rush job

Senate should take stand for highest standards

House Bill 80, which repeals much of the 2006 voter-approved cruise ship initiative, has been on a fast track since its introduction.

The House voted mostly along party lines to accept a preliminary science panel report that allows mixing zones for pollutants, particularly ammonia and copper and other metals, disbands the panel before it finishes its scheduled work and scraps the requirement for using best available technology.

The bill hasn't lost any speed in the Senate, where it went from the Finance to the Rules committee on Friday.

Why so fast?

The answer lies in the issues of best available technology, and mixing zones versus point of discharge for measuring pollution. The cruise industry wants to kill both the standard definition of best available technology and point of discharge standards. Industry reps argue that mixing zones suffice to protect aquatic life in the waters of Alaska's Inside Passage -- and the preliminary report of the science panel agrees.

Further, the bill would essentially redefine best available technology as any of a range of wastewater systems now in use -- not necessarily the best.

What's wrong with that? We can think of six reasons.

• Speed has precluded any voices of dissent. House majority lawmakers seemed to have heard what they wanted to hear in the preliminary report of the science panel, without any further vetting or a finalized draft, and now have decided they don't need to hear any more. So they killed the science panel.

Michelle Ridgeway, who served on the panel, has written a strong dissent anyway. And opposition, including that of United Fishermen of Alaska and the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian tribes, has begun to catch up with the bill. The Senate should hear those dissenting voices.

• By settling for mixing zones Alaska is choosing an essentially unmeasurable standard. The "point of discharge" standard means that cruise ship waste is measure as it comes out of the pipe, and has to meet water quality standards there, not after mixing with seawater. The mixing zone standard means that wastes are measure at some point after dilution in seawater, the theory being that dilution will preclude any harm to aquatic life.

The problem is that cruise ships are moving when they dump their wastes, making their mixing zones impossible to accurately define or measure. The arguments on mixing zones are based on the principle of dilution and the particulars of modeling. Dilution is debatable; modeling can't cover ever-changing variables in real waters, especially when the target is moving. The only sure measure of cruise ship pollution is from point of discharge -- that's why point of discharge was included in the 2006 initiative.

• If current law holds, it's not as if we're banning cruise ships from our waters. Half the fleet avoids Alaska waters now by dumping in federally controlled waters three miles off Alaska's shores. That's not ideal, but it does serve to keep wastes away from our highest concentrations of salmon and shellfish. Cruise ships also have the option, which some use, to transfer their wastes to municipal treatment plants in ports of call.

So if cruise lines can't or won't meet Alaska's standards with some of their ships, they have options by which they can keep doing a lucrative business here.

• About half the fleet now meets Alaska water quality standards most of the time. So the argument that our standards are unattainable simply isn't true.

• The industry has had seven years to comply with Alaska's water quality standards, and in a compromise bill approved by House and Senate in 2009, was given an extension to 2015 to meet those standards. Now the industry argues it shouldn't have to do that. The extension was given in good faith; was it taken in bad faith?

• No question the cruise ships Alaska sees run much cleaner than the ships of a dozen years ago. But let's remember how that's happened -- with tough laws and rigorous enforcement, backed in Alaska by a vote of the people in 2006.

Lawmakers are well within their constitutional rights to amend or even repeal voter initiatives after two years. And clearly Alaska has compromised on the terms of the original initiative, cutting head taxes and granting extensions to meet water quality rules. Some compromise made sense. But since the passage of the initiative DEC has been weak on compliance and the industry has been strong on further diluting the initiative. That's not healthy.

Senators should take more time than their colleagues in the House, hear from Alaskans who depend on our waters, and make sure that as we welcome cruise ships to our ports, we hold them to the highest possible standards.

BOTTOM LINE: Slow the rush on the cruise ship bill and keep Alaska's standards high.

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