Bill loosening cruise ship discharge rules passes in Alaska House

02/05/2013 5:43 AM

02/05/2013 6:52 AM

The House decided Monday to roll back pollution standards voted into law by the 2006 cruise-ship initiative, allowing cruise vessels to dump ammonia, copper and other contaminants into Alaska waters.

House Bill 80 passed 27-9 as the fourth week of the legislative session got underway. For a major piece of environmental legislation, it breezed through the House where its only committee, House Resources, reported it out without amendment last week.

The bill was requested by Gov. Sean Parnell and now goes to the Senate, where a companion bill has already passed the Senate Resources Committee and is awaiting action at its last stop before the floor, the Finance Committee.

The speed of the bill's passage, and the inability of opponents to change it, may represent a sign of things to come in Juneau, where state government is under one-party rule for the first time in years. Republicans control the governor's office and three-fourths of each legislative chamber. They made reduced regulations, resource development, lowered taxes and a business-friendly climate their mantra during the elections and since.

An advisory panel to the Department of Environmental Conservation said the cruise industry has been effective at cleaning up most the conventional sewage produced by its floating towns that bring nearly a million people to Alaska each summer. By the mid-2000s, cruise ships either upgraded to advanced treatment facilities, pumped their sewage into municipal plants when they docked, or traveled outside the three-mile limit to dump in federal jurisdiction, away from the most productive coastal waters.

The new treatment systems produced sewage with low counts of fecal coliform bacteria and total dissolved solids and were generally cleaner than most municipal systems in Alaska. But the 2006 cruise-ship voter initiative, in part a reaction to earlier sewage dumping by the industry, applied clean-water standards at the point of discharge into the ocean. Ships have consistently failed to reduce discharges of ammonia and heavy metals to those standards.

In 2009, the Legislature delayed implementation of the initiative and told DEC to create a panel of experts to look into whether it was technologically and economically possible by 2015.

The panel, with strong dissent, said in a preliminary report in November that the standards couldn't be achieved with existing equipment and suggested that dilution of ammonia and metals to safe levels would be achieved seconds after wastewater hit the sea.

The governor's bills -- House Bill 80 and Senate Bill 29 -- would permanently accept the weaker standards, choosing dilution over treatment. The bills also end the advisory panel's job two years early, cancel at least one public workshop or conference the panel was required to hold, and cancel the final report of the DEC on compliance and technology that would have been due on Jan. 1, 2015.

The bill was ushered to the House floor by the co-chairman of House Resources, Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River. Saddler described the 2006 standards as "not attainable."

"Why should we retain standards on the books that are impossible to meet?" he asked. He and other Republicans said it was wrong to hold the cruise industry to a higher standard than municipal systems or other vessels, like state ferries -- which bunk far fewer people than cruise ships.

House Democrats from Anchorage had some suggestions.

Rep. Chris Tuck, from Midtown, proposed an amendment requiring the DEC to post monthly reports on-line of the waste dumped by cruise ships in Alaska waters. Violations would also be posted.

"This is not an undue burden," added Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. "I've supported the people's right to know."

But Saddler opposed the amendment, saying it would amount to "looking over the shoulders of these professionals" at the DEC and lead to "harassment" of ship operators and owners, whose names would also be posted.

The amendment failed 24-11, with Republicans Seaton, Shelley Hughes of Palmer and Bill Stoltze of Chugiak voting with Democrats.

Rep. Les Gara, from downtown Anchorage, said he disagreed that mixing zones were a solution, but tried to amend the bill to keep the zones two or more miles from the coast. Citing scientific studies that say salmon are disrupted by even tiny amounts of dissolved copper, Gara said he didn't want to trade the cruise industry for the fishing industry.

"We don't hold our ferries to this standard," said Rep. Craig Johnson, a Republican who represents Oceanview and Bayshore in Anchorage.

Replied Gara: "There's pollution out there, so it's OK to have more? I don't agree with that, not if we're going to maintain the greatest wild fisheries in the world."

Gara's amendment failed 25-11, with no Republicans supporting it.

Finally, freshman Rep. Andrew Josephson, from the University district in Anchorage, proposed keeping the initiative standards but delaying their implementation until 2020, giving technology more time to catch up. Republicans Seaton, Lindsey Holmes of Anchorage and Cathy Munoz of Juneau supported the amendment, but it failed 24-12.

The final vote followed soon afterward, but not before freshman Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, expressed concern about "the velocity through which this bill has passed this House."

But Rep. Charisse Millett, a Republican representing the Lower Hillside in Anchorage, urged the Legislature to not be harder on the cruise industry than on fishing vessels.

"Let's not take one industry and penalize them for doing business in Alaska," she said.

Only one Republican, Seaton, voted against the bill, while Bush Democrats in the Republican caucus supported it.

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