Juneau will welcome more than 1 million tourists this year aboard some of the biggest cruise ships in the world.
The state’s regulators say they’re confident that when those tourists flush, the state’s waters won’t go down the drain.
“I think we’re well positioned to deal with the increase,” said Ed White, who is overseeing cruise ship pollution monitoring in Juneau for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
DEC’s cruise ship monitoring program runs on fees paid by the industry, so it isn’t as concerned about state budget cuts. While it has lost one administrator in the tourism offseason (White is now locally overseeing both air and water pollution), the program is fully staffed, he said.
Last year, the state issued no “notices of violation” to cruise ship companies for air pollution. That was a sharp turnaround from 2014, when cruise ships violated state rules 31 times.
When it comes to water pollution, the situation is a little more murky.
In 2015, the state issued 14 notices of violation for wastewater issues. That compares to 10 in 2015 and 23 in 2014, according to figures provided by White.
This year, 34 large cruise ships (“large” is any ship with berths for at least 250 overnight passengers) have filed plans to make 504 voyages into Alaska waters. Of those ships, 19 have been permitted to discharge treated wastewater here. Of those 19, only seven have been granted permission to discharge wastewater while the ship is stopped or traveling below 6 knots. The remainder must be moving faster in order to ensure the wastewater is diluted more completely.
The biggest ship of the season, the 4,000-passenger Explorer of the Seas, has not been permitted to discharge waste in state waters, nor has the No. 2 biggest ship, the 3,148-passenger Celebrity Solstice.
Cruise ship wastewater is an issue with a tumultuous recent history in Alaska.
In 2006, Alaska voters approved a ballot measure that required stringent end-of-pipe regulations for what cruise ships could dump.
In 2013, then-Gov. Sean Parnell introduced House Bill 80 to repeal that ballot measure, and the Legislature subsequently passed it.
Guy Archibald of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has memories of that political battle.
By phone, he said while DEC might be ready to keep up with state standards, those standards don’t necessarily mean much.
“They’re not really doing much of a job,” he said.
He would prefer that DEC take more measurements measurements of Southeast Alaska waters before the cruise ship season, then sample those waters during the season to measure the difference. DEC does take offseason measurements in Skagway and Juneau; Archibald would like to see more sampling.
“Short of that, I wish I had the funding to do it, because then I’d be doing it,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that DEC does not take offseason water-quality measurements for a baseline against the effects of cruise ship traffic. DEC does take those measurements in Skagway and Juneau.
Contact reporter James Brooks at email@example.com or call 419-7732.