JUNEAU -- The Senate turned aside a series of Democratic-sponsored amendments Wednesday to the Parnell administration bill rolling back cruise-ship wastewater restrictions, setting up a final vote next week.
Calling on the Senate to reject lowered standards, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said the Parnell administration based its bill on a "gross misrepresentation" of an advisory panel on cruise ship wastewater.
The panel, in a preliminary report in November, said no ship-board technology currently exists that meet state water quality standards and that discharges below those standards would cause no environmental harm. But panelists also said that the technology existed in land-based treatment systems, and one member of the panel said the report's executive summary downplayed concerns about the environmental impact of discharges.
Citing a report Sunday in the Anchorage Daily News, Wielechowski rejected assertions by the administration and legislators that the panel's work was complete and that its work should be the basis for the legislation, House Bill 80.
"We have a bill before us predicated on a report from a science advisory panel that is not even final and wasn't scheduled to be final for two years," Wielechowski said. "The science advisory panel was specifically told their report was not final."
The bill, already passed by the House, would immediately end the science panel by amending the 2009 law that created it. The bill would also allow the cruise industry to indefinitely discharge ammonia, a product of human waste, and heavy metals, dissolved from ship plumbing. Those discharges would have been banned in 2015 under a 2006 citizen initiative.
Ammonia can contribute to troublesome algae blooms and can harm shellfish. Copper, one of the heavy metals, has been shown to hurt a salmon's homing sense -- it's ability to smell -- at least in freshwater.
The first Democratic amendment, proposed by Sen. Dennis Egan of Juneau, a member of the Republican-led majority caucus, would have reinstated the advisory panel and the 2006 initiative discharge standards, but give industry until 2020 to comply.
Egan recalled a night when he was Juneau mayor, in 1999, when he got an emergency call from his port director. A cruise ship had dumped wastewater into Gastineu Channel and the stench was overwhelming, he said.
Large cruise ships no longer dump raw sewage. Under House Bill 80, the industry would still have to use advance treatment systems that produce cleaner effluent than most municipalities. But municipalities discharge in one spot. Cruise ships continuously discharge as they travel along the coast. Officials from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation say dilution to safe levels occurs quickly from moving ships.
Egan said his amendment "doesn't take any ship out of Alaska, so there's nothing to fear, and it keeps clean water for the people who live here year round."
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, the lead supporter of the bill in the Senate, said the advisory panel concluded that no more advanced technology existed than was currently installed.
"Consequently, delaying until 2020 any action on this doesn't really help us," Giessel said. "By postponing this, we could significantly impact the economic opportunity of coastal communities to which these cruise ships come."
The amendment failed 7-10. Two Republicans with fishing constituencies, Sens. Peter Micciche of Soldotna and Bert Stedman of Sitka, crossed over and voted with Democrats. Three senators who might have voted with them -- Democrats Lyman Hoffman, Bethel, and Donny Olson, Golovin, had excused absences, as did Republican Gary Stevens, who represents the fishing communities of Kodiak and Cordova.
Four other amendments also failed, but more resoundingly. Only the four Democratic minority members voted for changes that would require state officials to post on the internet the sampling results of cruise ship discharges, including where those discharges occur.
The four were also alone in supporting an amendment that would restrict discharges to two miles or more from Alaska's coast.
One Republican, Micciche, joined them to support an amendment by Wielechowski that would prevent discharges in a refuge or critical habitat area.
House Bill 80 was scheduled for a final vote on Feb. 19.
Haines resident Gershon Cohen, one of the opponents of House Bill 80, said Wednesday he expected opponents to continue to pressure Senators till then, especially those from coastal areas. Though he acknowledged defeating the bill was a long shot, the 7-10 vote on Egan's amendment gave him some hope, he said. The bill will take 11 votes to pass.
Earlier Wednesday, at the weekly press conference of Senate Democrats, Sen. Berta Gardner of Anchorage said she's been getting an overwhelming number of emails from constituents.
"This is something they feel deeply about and can express their dismay and their ire," she said.
Sen. Hollis French of Anchorage said the outpouring was understandable because of its roots in the initiative.
"That's why you're seeing much public input in what is otherwise a fairly abstract question about discharges and mixing zones and permits and so forth," French said. "The fact that people left their homes and went and expressed themselves and won on this issue despite overwhelming odds really got an investment in a lot of people minds."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or in Juneau at (907) 500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER