Science panel report used to push cruise ship bill after DEC said it wouldn't

rmauer@adn.comFebruary 9, 2013 

JUNEAU -- In September, as the science panel on cruise-ship wastewater was meeting to prepare the first of its two reports, it was told by the Parnell administration's second-ranking environmental official that its work would not be used as the basis for legislation.

Minutes of that Juneau meeting also show that at least one other official from the Department of Environmental Conservation assured panel members that the preliminary report then being hashed out would not be their last chance to present findings on whether cruise ships could do a better job cleaning wastewater. The official said that panel members would have ample opportunity to address additional concerns in their final report in 2015, as state law then provided.

Despite those assurances, on Jan. 17, Gov. Sean Parnell said the panel's preliminary report was the basis for a bill he was introducing, long sought by the cruise industry, to eliminate stringent wastewater requirements passed in a 2006 citizen initiative. Parnell's bill, already approved by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, also amends the 2009 law that created the science panel, eliminating it and shortcircuiting its final report.

The Daily News was provided a copy of the September minutes on Friday by a member of the 11-member panel, Michelle Ridgway, a consulting marine ecologist from Auke Bay, near Juneau. Ridgway has dissented from the executive summary of the panel's preliminary findings, and in an interview accused the administration of "cherry picking" the parts of the report that supported the cruise industry's contentions that it could continue dumping its treated wastes without harming Alaska's coastal waters.

"The findings are not reflective of the full content of that report, nor are they reflective of the range of perspectives provided by panelists involved in writing that report," Ridgway said.

Deputy DEC Director Lynn Kent, who has been presenting the administration's bill to committees in the House and Senate and who, according to the minutes, had made the assurance in September that the panel's work would not lead to legislation, said Saturday that her comments were true back then.

"At the time of the September science advisory panel meeting, there were no plans for administration-sponsored legislation regarding cruise ships," Kent said in an email.

But in his transmittal letters sending House Bill 80 and companion Senate Bill 29 to the Legislature, Parnell cited the panel in five of his seven paragraphs, including the opening:

"I am transmitting a bill relating to the regulation of wastewater discharge from commercial passenger vessels in state waters in response to analysis and findings of the Cruise Ship Science Advisory Panel (Science Panel) convened as directed by the Legislature in Chapter 53 SLA 09," he said. The legal reference is to the 2009 bill that created the panel and directed it to prepare a preliminary report by 2013 and a final report by 2015.

The ships for years have been in compliance with ordinary sewage treatment, generally returning water to the sea with safe levels of bacteria, solids and chlorine.

"You can drink it. I've drinken it," John Binkley, a former state legislator and president of the Alaska Cruise Association, said in Senate testimony last week. "It does not meet the standard in the U.S. -- we have a very high standard -- but in some countries, perhaps Mexico, you could use that as drinking water."

The science panel was set up to investigate whether it was technologically and economically feasible for cruise ships to install equipment to remove pollutants they were still discharging above water-quality standards: ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc.

Ammonia is a product of human and other waste. It's a nutrient for some types of plankton and can lead to troublesome algae blooms, and can also directly harm shellfish.

The heavy metals mainly leach from ship plumbing. Marine pipes are made up of copper, nickel and iron alloys, and zinc is used to corrosion-proof drain pipes. Copper is the main concern -- at even tiny levels, it has been shown to damage the ability of salmon to smell, at least in freshwater, according to testimony in the House and Senate. The sense of smell is believed to be critical in helping salmon find their home streams to spawn.

Cruise ship 'mixing zones'

The 2006 initiative was approved after a long series of sewage and oily wastewater dumps by cruise vessels in Alaska and elsewhere, including cases in Juneau that led to criminal charges. The ballot measure required large cruise ships to meet state water quality standards at the discharge pipe.

The law at the time -- and the law to which Parnell's bill would revert -- allows ships to use "mixing zones," just like municipal treatment facilities do. Mixing zones can contain above-standard waste -- a level that could harm the environment. But at the outer edge of the mixing zone, dilution is supposed to render the pollution safe.

When a cruise ship is under way, dilution is so rapid that levels of ammonia and heavy metals are at water quality standards in seconds, the DEC said. The same is true for the few vessels with such superior treatment that they're allowed to discharge in port, the DEC said.

But Ridgway challenged that assertion, saying it was based on models that don't take into account the tremendous variation of Alaska's coastal waters and the large number of cruise vessels that would continuously discharge waste.

In its preliminary report, the panel sided with the dilution model. It also said that no shipboard solution currently exists that could effectively remove ammonia and heavy metals, and said the prospects for such systems soon are remote.

"We don't have any single vessel that meets all of the standards consistently," Kent, the DEC deputy director, told the Senate Finance Committee last week, carefully choosing her words.

But DEC's own published records show that is only part of the story.

The vessel Statendam of Holland America -- the same company that pleaded guilty to a criminal charge for a 2002 spill in the Juneau harbor -- met water quality standards for copper and zinc in 11 of 12 samples taken in 2010, the most recent year for which sample data has been posted on the DEC website. The samples were taken over a four-month span during the May to September season.

The Norwegian Cruise Line's Star did almost as well, meeting the copper and zinc standards in 10 out of 12 samples during the same time span.

None of the other ships with permits to dump wastewater in Alaska were close, according to the 2010 report. The Statendam and Star missed water quality standards for ammonia in all the samples and nickel in most.

Implementation delayed

In 2009, facing the prospect that the cruise industry couldn't meet the initiative requirement, the Legislature decided to delay implementation to 2015. House Bill 134 directed the DEC to create an 11-member "science advisory panel" to investigate current treatment systems and to advise whether the technology existed -- and was economically feasible -- to meet the initiative's strict sewage limits.

The law directed the panel to assist the DEC in providing a preliminary report to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2013, and a final report by Jan. 1, 2015. The law gave the panel a six-year life.

Almost immediately, it became a flashpoint.

Haines resident Gershon Cohen, one of the authors of the 2006 initiative and a molecular biologist, said DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig asked him to serve on the panel. Three weeks later, Cohen said, Hartig withdrew the offer.

"They're claiming I'm not going to be objective," said Cohen, the director of the Campaign to Safeguard America's Water, a project of the environmental organization Earth Island Institute.

Six legislators demanded Cohen's reinstatement, accusing Hartig of bowing to the cruise industry, but Hartig replaced him with Ridgway, the Auke Bay marine ecologist.

Hartig reached outside the country for three of the panel members -- a naval architect from Germany who works for a company that builds cruise ships; a marine wastewater consultant from Finland who works with shipyards that build cruise ships; and a Canadian expert in transport. There was a paralegal from Seattle who works for the industry on compliance, a fish hatchery official and a municipal water treatment official from Sitka, a Public Health Service engineer from Juneau, an environmental engineer from a Kansas City engineering firm, a Coast Guard ship inspector from Juneau and an engineering professor from Fairbanks.

A list of the 26 nominees for the panel who were not chosen, provided by the state under a public records request, lists Cohen. Another was the professor who directs the University of Alaska Fairbanks fisheries program in Juneau, Keith Criddle, the Ted Stevens Distinguished Professor of Marine Policy.

At the time, Criddle had been leading a semester long seminar series on cruise-ship impacts, including air, water and noise pollution and the effects on local economies. The panels had broad representation, Criddle said, and included a representative of the cruise industry.

Criddle said he thought his seminars were neutral, but the cruise industry was upset.

"A balanced perspective doesn't necessarily mean the industry is pleased with the message," Criddle said. "They weren't so happy with the seminars, and weren't really comfortable with open discussion on ideas."

Criddle said he was told he wasn't selected for the panel because the DEC was looking for someone with "more specific technical expertise in water chemistry," not because of any pressure by industry.

Shutting down advisory panel

"The panel did not identify any new or additional technologies that would consistently meet the criteria for these remaining four parameters (ammonia and the three metals)," Gov. Parnell wrote in his message to the Legislature when he submitted the cruise ship bills. "The Science Panel concluded that given the current level of wastewater treatment and quality of effluent along with very large dilution factors there would be little, if any, demonstrable environmental benefit in requiring cruise ships to adopt, in the future, potential additional treatment methods."

The requirement that cruise ships meet Alaska's water quality standard "at the point of discharge" is gone from House Bill 80.

"There have been years of work and a tremendous amount of effort over those five words," said Binkley, of the state cruise ship association. The industry felt that restriction unfairly targeted its ships, he said.

Hartig, the DEC commissioner, said the new rules won't mean cruise ship companies will stop trying to improve. The state will continue to keep track of new technology and could require ships to meet tighter standards in the future, he said.

"You do get incremental improvements," he said. "As we tighten down on the ships, we push to see why one is doing better than the other."

Parnell didn't mention it in his transmittal letter, but House Bill 80 also shuts down the advisory panel two years early.

Testifying to the Senate Finance Committee, Kent, the deputy DEC director, said the panel had done its job.

"The panel's report is not a draft report," she said Wednesday. "It's a complete and through evaluation of existing treatment systems and an evaluation of new and emerging treating systems."

On Friday, in response to questions from Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, Kent went further.

"The word preliminary should not be confused with the word 'draft,' " Kent said. "They had multiple drafts of their report. This is a final report."

But as late as September, when the panel met in Juneau to finish the preliminary report, DEC representatives told them they'd have ample opportunity to revisit their work in the final report, due in 2015, according to minutes of the meeting.

The 25 pages of minutes were spotty in their identification of some DEC officials. For instance, one is just named "Andrew," and he's listed as "Division of Water DEC Director," a position that doesn't exist. Kent said it was probably Andrew Sayers-Fay, deputy director for the Division of Water. Elsewhere, a speaker listed as "D DEC" frequently gives suggestions to the panel. Ridgway remembers that person as either Sayers-Fay or Michelle Hale, another division director. Kent said she didn't know who it was.

"It is important to remind the panel that this is the preliminary report and it is fine if all the concerns are not made, that is why they asked for the preliminary report, to ask in the interim what does the panel think and at the end of two years you have the final report," the minutes attributed to "D DEC."

Kent was more specific about the purpose of the panel's report.

"We will not be adding specific recommendations with what the legislature will do with that, it is more of a status update to the legislature on work that DEC and the panel has been doing," the minutes quoted her as saying.

The next speaker was "Andrew."

"A big next step is the final report in two years," he said, according to the minutes.

Ridgway said she relied on that advice and believed that open questions about technology and discharges would be more fully developed later.

Other panelists, however, said they thought there wasn't much more to say. The Daily News was able to reach six of the panelists, including Ridgway. Of the others, Lincoln Loehr, the panelist representing the cruise industry, didn't return two messages left at his law office in Seattle; Reinaldo Gonzalez, the environmental engineer in Kansas City, also didn't return two calls to his office; the media representative at the German cruise-ship design and construction company Meyer Werft, where panel member Thomas Weigend is a naval architect, didn't return an email message; and the Juneau marine inspector, Bert Sazon, and Sitka water and wastewater superintendent, Mark Buggins, were out of town and couldn't be reached for interviews.

"When we wrapped up the work and handed it to the commissioner, essentially we were done," said Ken Fisher, the Public Health Service Engineer from Juneau. "My sense is that we worked the issue pretty hard."

"Everyone agreed with the findings," said panelist Steve Reifenstuhl, general manager of a regional aquaculture association in Sitka. As for continuing the panel, Reifenstuhl said the group had done "the bulk of the work" in the preliminary report.

Silke Schiewer, the UAF engineering professor, said she thought the panel had reached "a good point." But she also thought the report was too dismissive of existing technologies that could eliminate more metals and ammonia from ship waste.

"I would have emphasized more strongly that it would be feasible to achieve these reductions of the concentrations," she said. The technology exists today in land-based applications, she said, and "the same techniques could be used on cruise ships." While there are concerns about space and unknown costs, the potential "was brought up a little too weakly for my taste" in the report.

Simon Veronneu, a researcher with Supply Chain Research Group in Montreal, said in an email exchange that the panel was told when it first began meeting in 2010 that a decision on continuing to 2015 would be made after the preliminary report.

"I found out at the same time of everyone else in the population when the bill got introduced that ending the panel was the favored option," Veronneu said. "I knew this was a possibility all along and I am satisfied with our work."

Juha Kiukas, the managing director of ECOMarine in Espoo, Finland, a marine wastewater treatment consulting company, said by phone from Europe that he believed the cruise ships now treat their water "to a very good standard" and that taking it further might be possible, but perhaps not "sensible."

"Everything is doable on ships -- you can make seawater drinking water, you can make wastewater drinking water," Kiukas said.

But with space at a premium, owners wouldn't want to turn their vessels into what would be, in essence, floating treatment plants, not cruise ships. "You don't have space for the people anymore." He said it would probable take more than two years for technology that now works on land to be adapted for vessels.


Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or in Juneau at (907) 500-7388.

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