A 2013 state law that eliminated a tough voter-approved standard targeting cruise ship pollution is close to being implemented through a new system allowing wastewater to be discharged in Alaska waters or even while ships are at dock.
State environmental regulators say that they intend to protect Alaska waters and that the proposed new statewide general permit is designed to do so by ensuring wastewater goes through advanced treatment before it is diluted in "mixing zones," essentially blending in any remaining pollution with seawater.
But environmental activists say the proposal improperly allows cruise ships to pollute the state's waters by dumping what they call partially treated wastewater "into designated sacrifice zones alongside each ship -- even those at dockside."
"I look at a lot of permits. This is one of the most significant rollbacks I've ever seen," said Bob Shavelson, head of the Homer-based Cook Inletkeeper environmental group.
State officials disagree and say the shipboard treatment is comparable to existing municipal systems that also discharge effluent into Alaska's coastal waters.
Before a federal law pushed by then-U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski took effect in 2004 to force better treatment of waste from cruise ships, they left a nasty trail, said Andrew Sayers-Fay, deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Division of Water.
"If you were behind a cruise ship at that time, you would have smelled and noticed it," Sayers-Fay said. "But behind a system that is discharging from an advanced wastewater treatment system, there isn't going to be the odor or the smells or the discoloration of the water other than it is fresh water versus marine water."
Now if a cruise ship goes by, "21 seconds later, the water quality would be meeting standards," he said.
SMALL TOWNS AT SEA
Cruise ships carry anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people. The biggest hold about 4,000 passengers and crew members and are like small towns, generating large amounts of waste.
This year, 28 large cruise ships are operating off Alaska's coast. Not all discharge waste in state waters, within 3 miles of shore. Seventeen are regulated by an existing 2010 permit to discharge wastewater and 10 have approval to do so dockside, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. Another five may sign up under the new permit, which will replace the one from 2010, DEC said.
The 2006 voter initiative said large cruise ships had to ensure treated wastewater was clean enough not to harm life at the point of discharge from the ship, but that strict water quality standard was never implemented. The initiative came after cruise ships were caught dumping pollutants in Alaska and elsewhere, including cases in Juneau that led to criminal charges.
An advisory panel created by the Legislature to study whether a shipboard solution to the 2006 initiative was technologically and economically feasible found that it wasn't. But some scientists said its work was flawed.
Many ships were close to meeting the standards when Gov. Sean Parnell decided to abandon them, said Gershon Cohen of Haines, one of the initiative leaders. Most just needed to invest in an additional technology to address both organic contaminants and heavy metals, which require different removal processes, he said.
"They already had their main systems," Cohen said Friday. "All I would have wanted them to do is take that effluent and run it through one more filter."
A cruise ship industry group says that the standards Cohen pushed were not attainable, but that doesn't mean cruise ship discharges are polluting Alaska waters.
"If it was as simple as going down to NAPA and buying a copper filter, the ships and everybody else would have done that long ago," said John Binkley, president of Cruise Lines International Association -- Alaska.
Required treatment systems on board make the wastewater "almost drinking water quality," Binkley said. "I regularly drink the water. It's about as pure as you can get."
Even the most sensitive aquatic life will be protected -- the Department of Environmental Conservation will make sure of that, he said.
MIXING ZONES FOR SEWAGE
The change pushed by the Parnell administration and approved last year by the Legislature says the wastewater can be diluted in mixing zones at sea or dock, allowing higher levels of pollutants including ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc to be discharged than the levels voters approved.
Copper, a heavy metal that can leach from ship plumbing, is troublesome because it can hurt the homing sense of salmon. Ammonia, a product of human waste, can kill marine life.
With mobile mixing zones, various ships or even the same ship could repeatedly dump waste in the same area, concentrating pollutants that are supposed to be diluted and making it impossible to assign responsibility for pollution above allowed limits, said Cohen, who did his doctoral dissertation on mixing zones.
"They basically just get to pollute public waters," he said. "There could be fish in the water at the time they open their pipes. There could be large seaweed mats that are going to wash up onshore, that people are going to go down and pick up and put on their garden."
The proposed new permit, which would cover all large cruise ships discharging waste in Alaska waters, establishes a complex system creating two types of mixing zones, one for ships traveling at 6 knots or faster, another for those that are docked or traveling slowly. The Department of Environmental Conservation's fact sheet on the new permit is 75 pages.
WASTE DUMPED IN PORT
Environmentalists say the proposed permit isn't tough enough and they want DEC to redo it.
Shavelson, of Cook Inletkeeper, said he is particularly appalled at dockside discharges. Effluent discharged at a slow rate, for instance, won't mix as well, kind of like when a blender runs at low speed. But DEC says that dockside discharges were already allowed and the proposed permit includes additional protections in that situation.
Cook Inletkeeper and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council sent a critique of the permit that among other things urges DEC to bar waste discharges in wildlife sanctuaries, areas of critical habitat and fish and game refuges, or at the least require cruise ships to provide notice so that fishermen, mariners and others are informed.
"We are not even going to know where these guys are dumping," said Buck Lindekugel, whose job title is grassroots attorney for the conservation council.
Cruise ships must log their discharges, but there's no requirement for them to provide real-time notice or tracking and there's no need for that, either, given the high level of treatment, Sayers-Fay responded.
DEC is evaluating the comments. Officials plan to make work on the draft permit a focus for the month of June, Sayers-Fay said. The state has received about 100 comments; most were the same "protect Alaska's waters" message, he said.
Cruise ships should be operating under the new permit this season, he said.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER