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Cruise ship wastewater: How clean is clean enough?

A bill sponsored by Gov. Sean Parnell to relax cruise ship wastewater standards passed the house House on Monday (2-4-13). A similar measure is nearing a floor vote in the Senate.

In committee hearings on Senate Bill 29 and House Bill 80, much of the testimony has focused on a preliminary report by the Cruise Ship Wastewater Science Advisory Panel. The report concludes that cruise ships have gone as far as possible toward meeting the state’s standards, and that there’s little benefit to the environment to be gained – even by spending millions more on technology.

A member of the majority opinion on the Science Advisory Panel stands by that claim, but the co-author of the 2006 ballot initiative which imposed the standards disputes it.


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Haines resident Gershon Cohen’s background is in molecular biology. He’s frustrated by how proponents of the bills are framing their argument.

“Well the department’s trying to say they’re doing this on the basis of the best science. And that’s completely backwards. The best science are the water quality standards – those are the limits which have been found, through scientific experimentation, to provide protection for fish, or humans, or whatever standard you’re using.”

In this case, the standard is for marine organisms. Cohen calls the administration’s effort to relax wastewater standards risk management, not science.

Sitkan Steve Reifenstuhl has a different perspective. “That’s a black-and-white world. And we don’t live in a black-and-white world,” he says.

Reifenstuhl has been on the Cruise Ship Wastewater Science Advisory panel since 2009.

“It’s important to look at the context. If we applied these standards to the City of Sitka, the Blue Lake dam would look cheap.”

Blue Lake is priced at roughly $140-million, the most expensive project in Sitka’s history. Reifenstuhl is a biologist, and a pragmatist.

“The effluent and the waiver that every city that’s on the ocean’s gotten – from Anchorage to Ketchikan – puts out way more effluent, even the metals (they don’t even have to document nickel and zinc) copper, ammonia. It’s many times what the cruise ships put out.”

Gershon Cohen was initially appointed to the science advisory panel, but his name was pulled three weeks before the group convened, because of opposition from the industry, he says. Cohen, who co-wrote the language in the initiative that created the panel, says it was supposed to be looking at alternative technologies, like reverse osmosis.

“And they ended up spending a lot of their time talking about how they were going to change the rule, and whether or not the discharges there now are okay, and the equipment satisfactory. And that wasn’t what they were supposed to be doing.”

Cohen says there is no recognized standard for Advanced Wastewater Treatment Systems used by cruise ships. He calls AWTS a “public relations term.” The bills before the House and Senate would sample wastewater – not at the point of discharge, but in a mixing zone outside the ship. Proponents say this is what coastal cities do. Cohen says ships are cities – that move.

“You can’t survey the organisms, and what the water quality is like before, during, and after the discharge. So there’s absolutely no accountability.”

Reifenstuhl says cruise ships have been toeing the line since the late 1990s, following a series of egregious discharge violations. He suggests they’re less accountable than the rest of us for the cleanliness of the water.

“If you just look at the million people that visit Alaska on cruise ships every year, and take 70-percent of those – 700,000 – compared to the 700,000 citizens of Alaska who are here 365 days. You do the math on that – which I’ve done – and it’s twenty times more.”

As the general manager of the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, Reifenstuhl has a vested interest in fisheries. He’s visited several ships and seen the effluent that’s discharged – it often looks clear. But heavy metals wouldn’t color a glass of water. I asked him what if a cruise ship discharged in front of Bear Cove, where NSRAA’s Medvejie Hatchery sits just outside of Sitka. He said this was already happening in Juneau, where every ship calls.

“There’s 15 million chum salmon, there’s chinook salmon released right there. Those fish are going to swim right by the cruise ships. There’s also 100-million chum salmon released just north of Gastineau Channel. And so those fish are in those waters. And so would I be comfortable? As long as it’s [comparable to] what’s happening in the Juneau waterfront, I would be comfortable.”

Cohen says the passage of the bills would be a setback to Alaska’s image, and provide a toehold for the farmed fish industry.

“So much for Alaska producing fish that’s coming from pristine water. I think it’s a serious mistake, and it’s basically caving in to an industry demand that’s absolutely unnecessary.”

The 191-page report from the Cruise Ship Wastewater Science Advisory Panel is preliminary, and references about 500 pages of data. Reifenstuhl thinks the panel could meet for at least another two years to finish its work. He welcomes peer review of the group’s findings.

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