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DEC issues final Cruise Ship General Permit for 2010-2012 seasons

At the last minute, just 12 days prior to the first cruise ship arriving in Alaska, the Department of Environmental Conservation issued a final large cruise ship general permit.  The permit sets out the rules by which cruise ships may discharge treated wastewater in Alaska, effective 2010 to 2012.  

The final permit makes a number of changes to the draft permit released in February.  Testimony from the public workshop indicated that the initial draft permit would have been very problematic.  Certain limits applied to large cruise ships would have been unachievable by more than half of the vessels that are already using the most advanced technology in Alaska to treat wastewater. Limits that no shore based facility in Alaska is required to meet. The draft permit would have likely caused itinerary changes, including reduced times in port, causing further economic harm to small businesses bracing for 142,000 fewer visitors this year.     

Rather than one set of criteria applied to all vessels, the new permit has limits based on the wastewater equipment installed on the ships.  These limits are based on each system's best performance over several years of actual test results.  

DEC's research found that treated wastewater discharged at a minimum of 6 knots results in a dilution ration of 50,000 to 1.  The dilution is so significant DEC concluded that discharges at motion meet Alaska's Water Quality Standards nearly instantaneously.  In a recent press release, DEC Water Division Director Lynn Kent said, "No one will see or measure an adverse impact on water quality or aquatic life as long as the ships comply with the permit."  Given the effectiveness of current technology, ships that discharge while in motion should not be a problem for the environment.

This new approach will basically be phased in over two years.  In 2010, DEC will collect and test samples.  If a vessel does exceed the limits while underway, DEC will require the ship to report the incident and explain what corrective actions will be taken in order for the ship to comply by 2011.   

Overall, the new DEC permit will allow ships that use very advanced and effective treatment systems to operate in Alaska without changing their itineraries.  This is good news and AlaskaACT appreciates DEC's willingness to give serious consideration to the public testimony and establish a regulatory environment the industry can work within.

However, there is more work to do.  While DEC made progress in addressing the discharging while underway issue, the cruise industry continues to be held to a higher standard than other industries while not underway, even the best systems can't consistently comply while not underway.  [Municipalities and other dischargers continue their operations discharging at much higher volumes and concentrations.]  [The limits imposed on discharges while sitting at the dock are so high vessels can't comply.] This restriction is not applied to any other industry, especially municipalities which discharge higher volumes and concentrations all year round.

The ultra high limits were a result of a ballot initiative that was sold as treating the cruise industry similar to all other dischargers.  In fact, a provision that applied only to cruise ships prohibits the use of dilution when calculating discharge limits.  As a result, DEC held a technology workshop to evaluate current technology and the ability to achieve such high standards.  DEC concluded that there was no technology proven and readily available to be installed on ships that could consistently meet these standards in 2010.

This resulted in the Legislature introducing and passing legislation that allowed the industry more time to meet the standards, while DEC and the cruise industry continue to evaluate existing and emerging technology.  The bill also created a science panel that is tasked with identifying:
(1) Methods of pollution prevention, control, and treatment in use and the level of effluent quality achieved by commercial passenger vessels.
(2) Additional economically feasible methods of pollution prevention, control, and treatment that could be employed to provide the most technologically effective measures to control all wastes and other substances in the discharge.
(3) The environmental benefit and cost of implementing additional methods of pollution prevention, control, and treatment.

This information will be used by DEC in developing future permits.  The next Science Panel meeting will be held in Juneau on June 10th and 11th.  For more information, you can visit DEC's website at:  
http://dec.alaska.gov/water/cruise_ships/SciencePanel/meeting06102010.html.

We will keep you posted on new developments.  At some point, we may need to address the regulatory inequity on the visitor industry and actually enact what the ballot measure purported to do -- level the playing field for all industries.

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