U.S. Water News Online
JUNEAU -- The floating cities that will bring 800,000 to
900,000 tourists to Alaska this summer are a far cry from the cruise
ships that got in trouble for polluting state waters in the 1990s.
Many of the ships have new technology and those that don't are
more careful about where they dump wastewater from toilets, sinks,
laundries and showers.
While still under government scrutiny and still criticized by
environmental activists, few expect a repeat of the late '90s dumping
incidents that led to millions of dollars in fines against Royal
Caribbean Cruise Lines and greater regulation of all ships.
Carolyn Morehouse of Alaska's Department of Environmental
Conservation said stringent pollution control systems are now in
place on most large ships.
"They have really done a good job considering the amount of time
they've had and they've had to retrofit the systems,'' Morehouse
said. "They've done it very quickly.''
Even industry critics said the ships are doing a better job in
some but not all areas of concern. Gershon Cohen of Haines, who works
with the environmental group Earth Island Institute, said Alaska's
pollution rules are part of the improvement.
"I don't think the rules are as much as we need, but we still have
the best rules in the country,'' Cohen said.
Alaska's pollution rules limit the amount of fecal coliform
bacteria, an indicator of potential pathogens, in wastewater
discharged from ships. The rules also limit oil, chlorine and some
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S.
Coast Guard enforce the federal and state regulations. Wastewater
testing is done by private contractors and government workers, from
twice a year to twice a month, depending on the standard the ship
wants to meet.
Last year, 18 large Alaska cruise ships had advanced treatment
systems allowing continuous wastewater discharge anywhere. But 14
ships chose not to meet those standards. Instead, they held sewage
and most other wastewater until they were at least three miles
offshore, where they were allowed to discharge it untreated.
Numbers are not yet available for this year, since several
different ships are in the fleet and have not completed the
Ships also have a third option. They can release wastewater
meeting lower standards at least a mile away from shore, while
cruising at a speed of at least 6 knots, which dilutes the discharge.
Ships also face air pollution regulations. They limit the opacity
of smoke, which is monitored by a contractor who mostly checks ships
in Juneau's harbor.
Rules much like Alaska's are also in place this year in Washington
state, the home port of an increasing number of Alaska-bound ships.
John Hansen of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based North West
Cruiseship Association said his group signed an agreement last month
with the Port of Seattle and the Washington Department of Ecology
extending Alaska's standards.
"We think it is important to have one consistent, seamless regime
throughout the whole region,'' Hansen said. "After all, you run the
same ships and the same crews and the same equipment on board the
Extending Alaska's cruise-ship laws nationwide is one aim of
legislation under debate in Washington, D.C. It's known as the Durbin
bill, for Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois.
The bill starts with federal rules for Alaska drafted by Gov.
Frank Murkowski when he served in the U.S. Senate. But the Durbin
bill goes further. Among its provisions is a new no-discharge zone
reaching 12 miles out from shore.
John Shively of Holland-America Cruise Lines' Anchorage office
said such provisions reach too far. He said a 12-mile discharge ban
would negate new ship anti-pollution systems.
"The problem with that kind of thinking is then why would we put
in wastewater purification plants that cost the millions of dollars
we're currently spending?'' Shively asked.
Cohen, who worked on part of the Durbin bill, said such limits are
needed because other pollutants, such as plastics and heavy metals,
may make it past cruise ship treatment systems.
"Those systems may be doing a better job with sewage, bacteria and
total suspended solids, but it doesn't mean they're doing better with
all pollutants,'' Cohen said.
Industry analyst Mike Driscoll said he doubts the Durbin bill will
pass, given the makeup of Congress.
Driscoll, of the publication Cruise Week, said the industry has
improved its pollution record, spending millions of dollars on water
and air controls. But the effort isn't consistent.
Driscoll, of Wilmington, N.C., said he recently sat in on a
teleconference where one line announced plans to use cheaper fuel,
which critics claim causes more air pollution.
"It goes back and forth,'' Driscoll said. "I think they are doing
a lot of things differently now, but it's because of constant
prodding by government officials or environmentalists that they do
make these changes.''
State reports show no wastewater violation notices issued to big
cruise ships during the 2003 season, and only two air emission
violations were noted.
State environmental staff members said that's a sign of
improvement. But critics said it's not enough, and they'll continue
to pursue stronger state laws through an initiative they hope to put
on the ballot in 2006.
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