JUNEAU, -- A bill that would change how Alaska regulates cruise ship wastewater is on its way to the governor's desk.
The state Senate passed HB80 Tuesday, 15-5, following lengthy debate over whether Alaska waters and fisheries would be adequately protected. The vote had been pushed to Tuesday after several failed attempts to amend it last week. The measure passed the House, 27-10, earlier this month.
The bill, proposed by Gov. Sean Parnell, 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. The measure also would allow mixing zones where wastewater can be diluted into the water, if ships meet certain standards for treatment of discharge.
Several lawmakers said they had been flooded with comments on the bill, many of those in opposition. Critics have cast HB80 as a rollback of provisions of a 2006 citizen initiative; the chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party, Mike Wenstrup, went so far as to refer to HB80 as "Parnell's sewage bill."
Parnell's Environmental Conservation commissioner, Larry Hartig, has said the proposal would align rules for cruise ships with those for others that get discharge permits from the agency. And supporters insist the cruise industry will continue to be held to high standards.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, one of two Democrats along with Dennis Egan who caucuses with the GOP-led majority, joined minority Democrats Johnny Ellis, Hollis French, Berta Gardner and Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage in voting against the measure. Minority member Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, voted with the majority.
Egan, D-Juneau, spoke against the bill, saying he wanted to continue pushing the industry toward improvements, and initially voted against it. But he changed his vote on reconsideration. He said later that the bill's passage was a "done deal," and he figured "might as well."
During the debate, Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said there had been "considerable hyperbole and confusion" about what the bill does.
She said HB80 does not lower water quality standards or limit the Department of Environmental Conservation's authority to consider new technologies for wastewater treatment as they become available. Giessel, who carried the bill on the floor, said HB80 does not rollback the high standards already in place and "definitely" does not allow for the discharge of partially treated or untreated wastewater.
Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said she could cast her vote in favor of the bill "in good conscience, as a fish-loving, fish eating Alaskan."
In 2009, lawmakers passed legislation allowing the department to temporarily let cruise ships have mixing zones. Hartig said companies at that time were not meeting the more rigorous standard set out by the initiative, at least for certain pollutants. That authority currently remains in place.
The 2009 measure also called for a science advisory panel, which, in a preliminary report last year, found 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 four "constituents of concern:" ammonia, copper, nickel and zinc.
It identified "little additional environmental benefit" to be gained by lowering the current permitted effluent limits to water quality standards at the point of discharge. And it said a dilution model, developed by an earlier panel, and other studies showed concentrations lower than the water quality standards within seconds following discharge of the treated wastewater.
Michelle Ridgway, a marine ecologist who served on the panel, testified against the bill. She said she disagreed with several of the panel's findings, including that fish and marine animals are protected through a cruise ship general permit that restricts where and when vessels can discharge.
Wielechowski said people voted the way they did in 2006 because of the "unfortunate history" the cruise industry has had in Alaska and nationally, citing a number of environmental cases before the initiative's passage and alleged permit violations after.
"If this weren't happening anymore, maybe that's a different story," he said.
Wielechowski raised concerns about the levels of constituents like ammonia and copper that can be discharged while a vessel is docked and said the limits varied with the type of system a ship.
He said senators could either "stand up for the will of Alaskans," or bow to industry.