Bridget LaPenter said lately there’s something different in the air in Juneau.
The resident of the downtown Flats neighborhood said Tuesday night the air quality in her backyard is markedly worse when cruise ships come to town.
“We don’t live in Alaska to breathe air like that,” LaPenter said during a Juneau Commission on Sustainability session. “At this point it’s fairly outrageous.”
Wanda Culp, a retired resident of Hoonah, said during a Wednesday phone call, she is smelling and seeing the same things in the tiny, mostly Alaska Native village southwest of Juneau.
“It’s out of hand,” Culp said.
However, what effect, if any, ships have had on ambient air — the air we breathe — isn’t totally known, said Ed White, program director for Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Water Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental Compliance Program. That program is also known as “the cruise ship program.”
There has not been an ambient air study done in Juneau in 17 years, according to both White and the cruise ship program’s annual report.
That will change this year when air monitors are installed around downtown Juneau for a study that will be a collaboration between the cruise ship program and the DEC Division of Air Quality that was detailed during the commission meeting.
White said $50,000 has been set aside for the study, and that is covered by the fines collected by cruise ship from ships that violate DEC guidelines.
There’s been a high level of public interest in cruise ships and air quality lately, White said. The full Assembly chambers supported that idea, too.
Hoonah, Juneau and other communities around Southeast Alaska are seeing a record number of cruise ships — 37 ships, 567 voyages and 1.31 million passengers are projected for 2019 — and lodging a record number of complaints about cruise ships — 152 in 2018 alone.
A covert study conducted by Ryan David Kennedy, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health also generated worldwide headlines.
The study measured particulate matter in the air on four cruise ships while the ships were at sea.
Its results were shared Jan. 24, and found it’s likely that ship exhaust results in poor air quality aboard cruise ships. The study compared air quality on the ships to the air in Beijing, China, which is notorious for smog.
Some numbers back the nose and eye test, some do not and some don’t yet exist.
Over the past two years there have been 223 public complaints received by the DEC. The past two years totaled almost as many complaints as were received over more than a decade previously. From 2004-2016, 231 complaints were received, according to the cruise ship program’s annual air report.
The report states the increase in complaints came in tandem with an increase in ships using exhaust gas cleaning systems, or scrubbers, according to the annual report. Increases in complaints were also noted in Ketchikan, Skagway and Hoonah.
Violations have not increased in lockstep with the number of complaints, White said.
Last year, there were nine violations statewide, with one in Juneau, based on 480 opacity readings, 202 of which happened in Juneau, according to the cruise ship program’s annual report.
Monitors at Alaskan cruise docks measure ship emissions coming from a exhaust stack with a visual test of opacity. If emissions are see-through, they’re likely clean; if you can’t see through them, they may contain pollution.
The number of violations last year not particularly high when compared to recent history.
“There’s been years we’ve had more,” White said.
In 2010 there were 10 public complaints and 10 violations. In 2014, there were 23 complaints and 25 violations. In 2017, there were 71 complaints and two violations.
There is not yet clear-cut data related to the content of Juneau’s air.
There hasn’t been an ambient air study done since 2001, when pollutants were found to be below both federal and state standards, White said.
In the ensuing years, the general trend in air quality in the state and nation has been positive, said Barbara Trost, environmental program manager for the DEC’s Division of Air Quality.
“Overall, air quality in the past 20 years has gotten better,” Trost said. “The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has strengthened standards over the past 17 years.”
Sulfur dioxide standards were revised in both 2010 and 2012, according to the EPA’s website. Scrubbers — exhaust-cleaning technology systems — strip sulfur from emissions and became more common around 2016 to meet International Maritime Organization emission caps.
This season, a network of about 30 sensors will be set up in downtown Juneau for a collaborative study by the Division of Air and the cruise ship program.
The sensors will include both devices that use lasers to detect the size of particulates that are in the air and ones that measure the sulfur oxide content in the air.
There is a solution inside of them that reacts when it comes into contact with air containing sulfur oxide, Trost said. The
The study was the main focus of Tuesday’s commission session, and the sensors will likely begin gathering background data in April.
A new ambient air study has been a DEC goal since before the complaint spike of the past two years or the January study about air quality on board cruise ships.
“We’ve been trying to work on this for 10 years,” White said.
The sensors cost about $250 each, Trost said.
If connected to the internet, some of the sensors will begin to record data that could be made available right away. The sensors that measure sulfur oxide will need to be analyzed in a lab.
The sensors will remain up throughout the season and possibly later, Trost said.
If an excess of pollutants is found in the air, Trost said during the meeting, the next step would be confirming the actual source of pollution.
While the number of cruise ships coming to Southeast Alaska has increased in recent years, Trost said diesel buses, cars or other sources of pollution would also need to be considered if a problem is found.
It’s also possible recent changes are nuisances that do not impact health, Trost said.
“If you can smell it, it’s still dirty,” said Hoonah resident Wanda Culp.
Looking for homes
Locations for the sensors have yet to be determined.
Tuesday’s attendees were asked for location suggestions, and volunteers who would be interested in having a sensor at or near their home and powering it, were asked for contact information during the meeting.
They can also contact Trost at 269-6249.
The sensors draw about $1 of electricity per month, Trost said.
Bridget LaPenter, who said the quality of air in the Flats has been noticeably worse recently, asked if neighbors could personally chip in to buy an additional sensor.
Study organizers said that could be possible and asked for contact information.
After the meeting, LaPenter said she thought her neighbors would be interested in splitting the cost, but she wants to pursue the matter one way or another.
“If no one helps,” she said, “I will certainly spring for one.”
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenHohenstatt.