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Legislature passes bill to roll back cruise ship discharge standards

Pat Forgey
The Alaska Legislature has relaxed the law governing cruise ship discharges. Canadian Coast Guard/Canadian Press photo

The Alaska Senate on Tuesday approved a bill weakening discharge standards for cruise ships that had been imposed by Alaska voters, but advocates said reducing the standards was a matter of fairness.

The roll back of the discharge requirement in House Bill 80 was requested by Gov. Sean Parnell, who had earlier persuaded the Legislature to roll back the passenger head tax imposed by the same 2006 initiative. Having already passed the House, it will become law once Parnell signs it.  It was the first bill to pass this legislative session.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, carried the governor's bill on the floor, and she focused on the fairness issue -- not the roll-back.

The bill allows cruise ships to meet the water-quality standard at the edge of a "mixing zone" in which it is diluted instead of at the point of discharge. House Bill 80 allows mixing zones, she acknowledged, while adding that "these are the same mixing zones that are allowed municipal wastewater treatment plants, fish processors and others."

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said the state was not putting its waters at risk by adopting the bill. "This mother of a fish-eating son would never allow that," she said.

Despite concerns voiced by Democrats about the effect on Alaska's fishing industry, Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he wasn't concerned. Micciche, who said he fishes commercially, said the cruise ship discharges were treated so well that they presented no danger. He contended they were treated more extensively than cities treat their wastewater. Alaskans should know cruise ships discharges are better than discharges from the "water treatment plant in their hometowns every day," he said. 

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said he was backing the public, who had spoken through the 2006 initiative when they voted for clean water, despite a strong industry lobbying effort in opposition. Some 52 percent of the voters backed the initiative.

"It's a dangerous road to go down when we think that can be toyed with lightly," Ellis said.

The opposition to Parnell's bill came from Democrats, including Sens. Dennis Egan of Juneau and Donny Olson of Golovin, both part of the Republican-led majority. Democrat Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, voted with Republicans for the bill. Both Hoffman and Olson had been absent during earlier discussions of the bill.

On Tuesday, Olson said he'd heard from his northern coastal constituents that they likened it to the industry opposition to the Alaska Coastal Management plan. "They think this is one more step of industry making an insult on some of the waters around here," Olson said.

Democrats in the House, which had earlier passed the measure, criticized the weakened regulations and the minimal hearings given to the bill. Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, called it "really embarrassing" for Alaska to lower its cruise ship discharge rules below those of California. "To put Alaska behind California in terms of water quality for the cruise ships is truly not where we want to be," she said.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said the House of Representatives had four hours of hearings on the bill, and never heard from the cruise companies themselves, just groups such as the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and the Resource Development Council. Even the Alaska Cruise Association, headed by former legislator John Binkley, didn't testify, he said.  

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com