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Alaska governor proposes changes to the way wastewater from cruise ships is regulated

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JUNEAU, Alaska - Gov. Sean Parnell is proposing changes to the way the state regulates wastewater from cruise ships — drawing criticism that his proposal would roll back provisions of a 2006 citizen initiative that required cruise ships to meet state water quality standards when dumping wastewater.

The proposal, SB29 in the state Senate, got its first hearing Wednesday in front of the chamber's Resources Committee. Larry Hartig, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the proposal would align the rules for cruise ships with those for others who get discharge permits from the agency.

According to a sectional analysis, the measure would require that cruise ships discharge wastewater in a manner consistent with applicable state or federal law. It would strike the more stringent requirement that discharges meet state water quality standards at the point of discharge.

It also would allow authorization of mixing zones if ships meet certain standards for treatment of discharge. The system used either would have to be an advanced treatment system or the ship would have to use methods that achieve the quality of effluent comparable to one or more ships using an advanced system.

Hartig said the department can set restrictions for mixing zones and decide where, when and how ships can discharge to protect for other uses.

Lawmakers in 2009 passed legislation allowing the department to temporarily let cruise ships have mixing zones; at that time, cruise ship companies weren't meeting the more rigorous standard set out by the initiative, at least for certain pollutants, Hartig said in a letter to lawmakers earlier this month. That authority is set to expire in 2015.

The legislation also called for a science advisory panel that was tasked with looking at pollution and pollution control issues. That panel concluded that advance wastewater treatment systems required in 2004 were "state of the art," Hartig said, and it could not identify other systems that exist or were on the horizon that would bring ships fully into compliance.

The panel, in a preliminary report from November, found that none of the advanced wastewater treatment systems on ships operating in Alaska waters could consistently meet water quality standards at the point of discharge for "constituents of concern" — ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc.

Parnell, in his transmittal letter, said the advanced systems being used "are significantly more effective and produce a higher quality discharge than most municipal systems."

"Even without incremental improvements to cruise ship wastewater quality, aquatic life and human health are protected through provisions in the current cruise ship General Permit that restrict the location of discharge and when ships must be under way before they discharge," he wrote.

Gershon Cohen, project director with the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters, said the proposal isn't based on the best available science.

"The best science for what puts people and marine ecosystems at risk are the Water Quality Standards," he said in an email. "Using public waters to dilute waste isn't good science, it's simply risk management. It is saying, how much risk are 'we' willing to take on to not require a polluter to clean up their discharges."

He also said a science advisory panel, "refused to acknowledge" some treatment devices work better than others and that combinations of technologies could reduce emissions below the water quality standards at a "minimum" cost to each ship.

Guy Archibald, mining and clean water co-ordinator for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said he's not sure what the rush is to "rescind" the 2006 initiative, which has already been modified. For example, in 2010, the Legislature passed a reduction in the cruise passenger head tax. The move was aimed at attracting more ships — which Parnell says it has — and at settling a lawsuit with the Alaska Cruise Association, which it also did.

Cohen was kicked off the science panel after questions were raised about his objectivity — concerns he said were bogus. He said he was removed before the committee ever met because the cruise industry didn't want him on the panel.

He said no definition exists for an advanced wastewater treatment system, and he referred to mixing zones as "legalized pollution" zones.

"So much for Alaska fish being the best in the world because of our pristine waters..." he wrote in an email.

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For the text of SB29: http://www.legis.state.ak.us/basis/get_bill_text.asp?hsid=SB0029A&session=28 .

The bill is HB80 on the House side.

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Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap .

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