Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve recently announced it is now conducting random inspections of large cruise ships to ensure environmental compliance among the few vessels entering its highly protected waters.
Each large cruise ship that enters will undergo two random inspections over the course of the summer. This includes Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Seabourn Cruise Line which have already signed a contract with third-party inspectors and Norwegian Cruise Line is expected to do so as well.
The move comes after a much-publicized incident in which a Holland America cruise ship dumped gray water in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which led to the cruise line being fined over $17,000. It also comes after years without third-party inspections of the large cruise ships entering the park’s water.
The new program brings inspections back to the cruise ships that use the water of the highly protected Glacier Bay — which receives more than 95% of its visitors via large cruise ships, according to the National Park Service news release announcing the program and allows no more than two cruise ships to enter each day. The news release outlines what the inspections will be looking for.
Cruise ships are footing the bill for inspections, which were previously conducted through the state’s Ocean Ranger program. However, that program has been defunded for years following budget vetoes from Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“The hope is that the Ocean Ranger program may revive because we’d rather not have this program,” said Scott Gende, the senior science adviser for the National Parks Service based out of Juneau. “This program is temporary, but until we can get a rigorous compliance program in place, we are going to continue to have independent reports of the ships.”
Where did the Ocean Ranger program go?
Cruise ships in the park — and elsewhere in Alaska’s waters — were previously independently observed by certified marine engineers through Alaska’s Ocean Ranger program, which was created by a voter-approved ballot measure in 2006. It’s been halted for two years because Dunleavy has vetoed funding for the program. Without any means of funding, the program went out of commission across the state, but cruise ship passengers still pay the voter-approved $4 berth fee, according to a fund source report by the Legislative Finance Division.
“He has not done what the law requires, and if there’s no money, the program doesn’t happen,” said state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat.
Kiehl said that he thinks it’s a good thing that Glacier Bay initiated this new program to keep the waters healthy, but said he thinks there is still a huge concern for the health of the rest of Alaska’s waters.
Last legislative session Dunleavy proposed SB180 and HB303, which would end the Ocean Ranger program and would make changes to cruise ship regulations. Dunleavy stated the reasoning behind the bills was that the program inappropriately targets cruise ships. The cruise industry has a combined direct and indirect impact of $3 billion on the state’s gross product, according to a multi-agency report from the state, and in 2019 alone, Alaska welcomed 1.36 million passengers who came to the state via cruise ships.
Kiehl proposed a compromise to Dunleavy’s bill which would scale back the Ocean Ranger program but not remove it, however, it failed and so did both of Dunleavy’s proposed bills when the session ended.
“It’s a Glacier Bay-specific bandage, and Glacier Bay is a tiny, tiny portion of Alaskan trade waters,” he said about the new program.
Kiehl said he has been told the Department of Environmental Conservation does conduct cruise ship inspections as well, but he said he has received little communication about the number of inspections or the frequency. Kiehl said he sees a few ways the Ocean Ranger program could go back into service across Alaska waters, but a lot of it depends who the next governor will be, and if they would be willing to find ways to bring the program back instead of vetoing or removing it.
“We can do better than the past, but we can’t do it better if we’re not doing it at all,” he said.
Randy Bates, the director of the division of water within the DEC, said the DEC is doing cruise ship inspections that are “much more significant than what the Ocean Rangers were doing.”
“We didn’t just walk away from oversight, we still have a much more significant, much more robust oversight right now in the absence of the Ocean Rangers,” he said.
Bates said in 2019 after Dunleavy first vetoed funds for the program, the DEC took the roughly $3.5 million annual average revenue from the $4 berth fee and reallocated it to be spent in a more “efficient” way.
“The Ocean Rangers played a specific purpose, over the course of 12 years implementing Ocean Rangers, it was not money — in our opinion — well spent. From my perspective, it was not a well set up system where we could have immediate oversight.”
Bate’s said the DEC had reached out to Glacier Bay National Park to see if the DEC inspection program satisfied the park’s inspection requirements in light of the absence of the Ocean Ranger program which left the park in need of a replacement. However, the park declined DEC’s offer. Bates said he was given specific reasoning as to why.
Bates said the reason there has been public upset surrounding the ending of the Ocean Ranger program is because people do not know that the DEC is doing inspections, and are doing them “more proficiently” than the Ocean Ranger.
“They think the Ocean Rangers provided the sole oversight, but that’s simply not the case,” he said. He said the spending on the Ocean Ranger program “wasn’t the best use” and said his staff of six is able to provide 100% of inspections of commercial passenger vehicles in Alaska waters within four weeks of arrival.
The roughly $3.5 million average annual revenue from the $4 berth fee that once funded the Ocean Ranger program is now directed toward several destinations, according to. These include:
— Funding the six D.E.C. staff commercial passenger vessel inspectors (two marine engineers, four environmental protection specialists)
— The Division of Spill Prevention and Response (SPAR) prevents spills of oil and hazardous substances
— The Division of Air Quality, Air Monitoring & Quality Assurance Program operates to oversee the air quality monitoring networks across the state
— The Division of Administrative Services
— Water Quality Monitoring & Assessment data collection
The funds will continue to be allocated toward those programs unless Dunleavy or lawmakers reallocate the money back into the Ocean Ranger program, which technically still exists in state law.
But, for the time being, Gende said the newly initiated environmental inspection program is a step forward to continue to maintain the environmental health of the national park.
Cruise ship companies are concession contract holders for Glacier Bay — meaning they are contracted to provide visitors services to a national park — and are required by state and federal regulations to reduce impacts on the environment. They also must comply with the stipulations of the concession agreement which has a higher standard of regulations than state waters, such as zero discharge of wastewater and use of low sulfur fuel.
The program is entirely funded by the cruise ship companies that receive the inspections, something Gende said was a voluntary decision.
“This is a separate third-party contract that the companies have voluntarily agreed to pay for, but the scheduling and the reports go directly to the parks service,” Gende said.
He said the park already has a self-reporting system with the companies that they must comply with and said this is just another layer of compliance that ships must abide by to enter the national park’s waters.
“Those companies stepped up, and said they are willing to support the inspections,” he said. “They were nothing but supportive of the program, there was zero resistance from the industry for support of the program.”
Robert Morgenstern, who oversees destination-related operations for the Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Seabourn cruise ships that enter the park, said the decision for the cruise lines to voluntarily provide this inspection program was necessary to meet the requirements for the cruise lines’ concession contract agreement with the park. He said with the Ocean Ranger program gone, the cruise lines knew they had to create something similar if they wanted to continue bringing visitors into Glacier Bay and worked with the park to facilitate the program.
“The concession contract requires it to be undertaken,” he said. “It’s central to our ability to enter into the Bay, and we have to make sure we adhere to them.”
Karla Hart, a cruise reform activist and among the group that held a Tuesday evening protest against cruise line pollution, said she is skeptical of the motives behind the cruise line company’s compliance. Hart said there needs to be more action to stop cruise line pollution across the state.
“It’s pennies to pay for the inspections,” she said. “Glacier Bay is the most premier attraction in Alaska, and they’re funding the inspections because the park would say ‘you can’t come’ and if they couldn’t come then that’s a big problem.”
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.