The 2022 Cruise ship season remains in full swing and the Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Water, Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental Compliance Program staff have been active with cruise ship oversight and inspections. As we welcome the vessels and passengers back to southeast Alaska, we share this update on our vessel oversight role and what we are seeing in our inspections.
Commercial passenger vessels began arriving in Alaska waters in April this year and are scheduled to continue operating through the beginning of November. Based on required registrations with the Program, there will be 59 vessels operating in Alaskan waters (18 small vessels with 50-249 lower passenger sleeping berths, 41 large vessels with more than 250 lower passenger sleeping berths), bringing approximately 1.65 million passengers to and through southeast Alaska.
Prior to their arrival in the state, the program provided each owner and operator of a commercial passenger vessel with the requirements to operate in Alaska, and each owner/operator responded to register to operate in Alaska and provided DEC with the vessel passenger count, number of voyages (port-to-port), contact information, and notification if the vessel will be discharging treated wastewater. This year, all 18 of the small vessels and 25 of the 41 large vessels operating in Alaska applied and intend to discharge treated wastewater in State waters; the remaining 16 large vessels elected to not discharge in State waters and will instead hold their wastewater and discharge it outside of the Alexander archipelago and out of Alaskan waters. Those vessels that discharge wastewater in Alaskan waters have strict treatment, sampling, and discharge rules to follow, and the program staff review vessel plans and issue authorizations to ensure vessel compliance with the established rules.
As part of the ongoing compliance evaluation for each vessel, program staff perform onboard inspections and have completed a total of 70 vessel inspections so far this season. The program has implemented a rigorous and robust inspection program for both large and small vessels, with all vessels inspected at least once while in port (not moving), with follow-up inspections performed as needed and for those large vessels opting to discharge in Alaskan waters. During the onboard inspection, sampling results and other documents are examined to determine if the operator is complying with their requirements. Additionally, program inspectors evaluate the treatment system, engineering plans and plumbing, and ensure that the wastewater systems are operating as described (including no unmonitored discharges). In addition to their in-port inspection, large vessels which discharge while underway in Alaskan waters are inspected a second time to ensure that their discharge process complies with the requirements of their permit (both discharging at speed and in approved areas).
So far this season we have seen a few standout performers in the fleet with excellent compliance records, a high degree of compliance onboard many of the vessels, with others having room for improvement. Some violations that program staff have noted have come from high fecal coliform exceedances, with four vessels scheduled to receive a violation for unauthorized discharges. Program staff have had direct and pointed conversations with these vessels and expressed the need and requirement to perform as expected and comply with the established rules. With a vessel discharge violation, or water quality standard exceedance, program staff work with the vessel to immediately establish a corrective action plan and remedy the situation.
After the summer season program staff compile inspection findings and discharge monitoring information to summarize the compliance, sampling, and laboratory testing results of the commercial passenger vessel treated wastewater discharges. Those reports are available to the public and can be downloaded after the program staff have had a chance to compile the season’s information at dec.alaska.gov/water/cruise-ships/cruise-reports. Please look for these reports as the calendar year winds down and join us in praising the standout performers and challenging those vessels with room for improvement.
It should come as no surprise that we take our responsibility to protect human health and the environment very seriously and we expect these 59 vessels and all operating industries, operators, and facilities to comply with the established rules and discharge requirements. Our Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental Compliance Program staff are doing an admirable job of that, ensuring the entire commercial passenger vessel fleet is aware of and compliant with the discharge rules in Alaska.
• Randy Bates is the director of the Division of Water in the Department of Environmental Conservation, is the former director of the Division of Habitat in the Department of Fish and Game, and is an active sport and commercial fisherperson plying and playing on the waters of southeast Alaska throughout the year.