JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature has passed a landmark bill establishing state oversight of cruise ship pollution.
The House of Representatives passed the bill 29-5 about 10:35 a.m. June 9, and the Senate followed with a 13-6 vote about seven minutes later, sending it to Gov. Tony Knowles for his signature.
The bill, with final touches from a House-Senate conference committee, authorizes the Department of Environmental Conservation to negotiate with the cruise industry on regulations for wastewater discharges, air emissions and solid-waste handling, thereby reinforcing and surpassing federal environmental protections. A $1 per passenger fee will be assessed to pay for the state’s program.
Cruise companies will register with the state and agree to comply with the regulations, as well as provide a series of reports.
While there was sharp debate about whether the bill went far enough or too far -- including a close vote in the Senate defeating a $10 passenger head tax -- the legislation is groundbreaking. It contains the first regulation on the content of graywater discharges ever passed by any government.
"Bam! We’ve kicked it up a notch, haven’t we?" a smiling Knowles said soon after the Legislature adjourned the special session he had called. He said that DEC Commissioner Michele Brown, "a true hero," will start preparing for negotiating rules with the foreign-based cruise companies.
"Whatever flag they fly, they must honor, in our waters, our values and our environment," the governor said.
Brown said that the bill gives the department the tools it needs to inspect ships, monitor emissions, take water samples and enforce pollution limits.
But despite the historic occasion, there was discord along the way.
Six Senate Democrats, including Juneau’s Kim Elton, voted against the bill because the final version that came back from a House-Senate conference committee wasn’t as explicit as the Senate-passed bill in guaranteeing testing for all kinds of pollutants in wastewater.
"It is a good day, that we passed cruise ship legislation," Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis of Anchorage said later, without enthusiasm. "It could have been a better day."
House Democrats unanimously supported the bill but also expressed misgivings.
"I think this is sort of a wimpy response to the problem," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz of Anchorage.
The bill’s co-author, House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, bristled at that, emphasizing that Alaska now has gone where no other state has gone.
"This is a huge step; it really is," said Mulder, an Anchorage Republican.
Meanwhile, majority Republicans said the Democratic governor’s three-day special session was crassly political because nothing will be achieved before next year that couldn’t have been anyway.
The North West CruiseShip Association had agreed to abide by the provisions of the bill, and receipt authority was given to DEC in the operating budget to collect $700,000 in industry fees. The regulations that DEC will negotiate won’t be done before this cruise season is over.
"But the fact is, the momentum was there," acknowledged Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican.
Three instances of wastewater discharges in violation of federal law, all since the May 8 adjournment of the regular session, helped sustain the drive for passing the bill.
Brown said that accepting a civil contract with the industry in lieu of law, even if temporarily, would set a bad precedent. And the state wouldn’t have the same enforcement ability to deal with criminal violations, she said. Putting the bill off until next year also would have slowed the rulemaking process.
However grudgingly, Republicans moved the bill rapidly through their committee structure and to the floor. Along the way, they made changes delaying the new wastewater discharge requirements for small cruise ships and state ferries, and shored up the bill to ensure DEC access to all holding tanks.
Concern had been raised about whether ballast water was being mixed with sewage, as several ships are holding their waste for discharge outside of Alaska waters rather than risk exceeding the new federal limit on fecal coliform colonies in blackwater, or toilet waste. A final amendment clarified that the state can inspect ballast tanks or other holding tanks if they have been used for storage of sewage or graywater, which comes from showers, sinks, laundries and galleys.
But the conference committee ended in a dispute about whether the industry should report to the state any discharges of photo-processing chemicals, medical waste and other toxic materials, which are illegal to dump under federal law. The conference committee voted along party lines against requiring such reports, although industry representatives agreed to a statement by the Legislature that it expects them to notify the state of any such discharges.
Mulder was angered by the final push for placing another reporting requirement on the industry. He said federal law ensures adequate reporting, although that was disputed.
"Do we want to be duplicative, redundant and otherwise repetitive?" Mulder asked after the conference committee adjourned. "It appeared to me to be picking a fight where there was none."
Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat who has been pushing for cruise ship regulation the past two years, said it was a "right to know" issue for the state.
If cruise ships don’t discharge illegally, they merely would file a report saying so, said Kerttula, one of the conference committee members. "As an attorney, as an Alaskan, I want it clear in our law that we know exactly what is coming out of these ships."
But Republicans on the conference committee, including Juneau Rep. Bill Hudson, wouldn’t go along.
"It’s a shame that here we had the Senate pass a bill that made it clear that all discharges could be tested and all discharge systems could be examined, and the House wouldn’t go for that, presumably at the industry’s behest," said Gershon Cohen of Haines, a clean-water activist. "The result is maybe we closed part of a loophole; maybe we didn’t. Maybe we closed most of a loophole; maybe we didn’t ... It is remarkable and noteworthy that a bill was passed."
Kerttula said her father, former House Speaker and Senate President Jay Kerttula, gave her some perspective. While it took 10 years to get an anti-trust law on the books, he reminded her, she was able to achieve a comprehensive cruise ship bill in just two.
"I feel very good about what we accomplished," she said. "But this voyage isn’t over yet."
Halford, who worked with Kerttula on the issue, said he believes the environmental issues mostly have been resolved. The state can test for whatever pollutants it wants to now that it has access to any facilities used for blackwater and graywater, he said. "Whatever you find in the sample, you have all the other laws to act on."
But Halford said there are revenue issues remaining, including making the cruise industry pay the apportioned corporate income tax and a passenger head tax.
An amendment for a $10 head tax was defeated by a vote of 10-9 in the Senate. It would have raised about $7 million, which co-sponsor Randy Phillips, an Eagle River Republican, said would be a modest contribution toward the facilities and resources that the cruise industry enjoys in Alaska. Sen. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, countered that the industry does a lot more marketing for the state of Alaska than either the state or the domestic private sector.
Sen. Alan Austerman, a Kodiak Republican who represents small coastal communities in Southeast that might be affected by cruise ship pollution, voted against the head tax and against the Senate bill on June 8. He refused to discuss his reasons.
The Alaska debate has drawn widespread attention, with a recent editorial in a Honolulu newspaper urging Hawaiian lawmakers to pass a similar bill. Former British Columbia Premier Mike Harcourt was at the Capitol watching the proceedings. And Randy Ray of the U.S. Cruise Ship Association said he was aware of several states or Canadian provinces that are studying the legislation.
Ray told lawmakers: "This will set the template for the rest of the planet."