By Naomi Klouda
A Gov. Parnell administration measure to roll back cruise ship wastewater standards was voted down by Homer’s Rep. Paul Seaton and voted up by Sen. Peter Micciche.
House Bill 80 passed into law on Tuesday afternoon, in a Senate vote of 14-6. It effectively rolls back standards set in a ballot initiative passed by voters in 2006.
In voting against it when the bill was in the House, Seaton said he was concerned about the discharges that would be allowed in critical habitat areas, such as Kachemak Bay. He tried to gain protective amendments, but none of them passed.
“A large concern of mine about this bill was allowing the (Department of Environmental Conservation) to determine if they would permit pollution discharge levels that required a mixing zone in legislatively designated critical habitat areas like Kachemak Bay,” Seaton said.
A mixing zone is an area of water where pollutants from a point source discharge are mixed naturally with cleaner water. In the mixing zone, the level of toxic pollutants is allowed to be higher than the acceptable concentration for the general body of water. His amendments would have kept the higher standards before discharging in a critical habitat.
Seaton also asked for a reduction in the amount of acceptable copper, which harms a salmon’s ability to hone its way to home waters. And he wanted a prohibition of discharge within two miles of shore.
The legislation, already passed by the House, is the first bill to clear both the House and Senate in the 2013 legislative session that began just over a month ago.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-District O that includes Homer, also had wanted an amendment to prohibit wastewater dumping in Kachemak Bay. In the end, he voted in favor of the measure.
This is the statement from Sen. Micciche: “I voted across party lines for two amendments that I felt would have best protected Alaska’s waters. The first was to simply extend the dates of the 2006 initiative to give the industry more time to comply since it is simply not possible for ships to meet the regulations at this time. It failed. I also voted for the Democrat amendment to remove all game refuges, wildlife sanctuaries, critical habitat areas and wildlife ranges from areas where discharge can occur. It failed as well.
“Seeing the “writing on the wall” that the bill was going to pass, I worked for agreements for specific protection for the Kachemak Bay, Tugidak Island and Copper River Delta Critical Habitat areas to ensure there would be no discharges in the habitat most crucial to our constituents. The key result is that I have been assured by DEC, the administration and the cruise industry that there will be no cruise ship discharges within the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area. With that commitment, I decided to support the bill. It may not be the very best outcome to some folks, but it is a dramatic improvement over the nothing that was coming our way.
“We will be working with the DEC, who has the statutory authority to restrict areas where discharges may occur and Kachemak Bay stakeholders to address concerns during the permitting cycle.
To be fair by any accurate standard, the ships currently discharge very high quality effluent compared to most municipal wastewater treatment plants in the same waters that are primary in nature compared to the advanced tertiary treatment on most cruise ships. If ships were to discharge effluent of equal to nearly every municipal wastewater treatment in the state, they would be breaking the law.
“My goal is to encourage companies to relocate older ships with copper water distribution systems elsewhere and to use the very best treatment technology possible in Alaska waters. I also want them to continue meeting the strict standard that allows them to discharge in Alaska waters instead of moving out to immediately-adjacent Federal waters to discharge anything they please. Salmon must swim through Federal waters as well.
“Juneau is a funny place. My philosophy is to the do the best I can for District O constituents with the tools that are available, which is what occurred on HB80. A goal of mine over the interim will be to assemble a team of interested folks on the peninsula to help begin prioritizing coastal wastewater treatment plants to plan for eventual upgrades for the greatest improvement to marine water quality possible. I’m encouraged to assume that I will not have a difficult time on the Southern Peninsula finding volunteers to assist in the project.”
Homer will only see one cruise ship visit this summer, the Silver Shadow on May 19. Homer Chamber of Commerce Director Monte Davis said the cruise ship industry switches its packages every few years, and while offering the 14-day Alaska package, Homer was made a stop for up to a dozen times per the last few summers. This summer, Whittier and Seward will get the most cruise ship traffic while Anchorage is scheduled for none.
But Homer will receive twice-a-week visits as “add-on” packages throughout the summer, Davis said. This will mean Homer businesses will see regular cruise ship passenger traffic by bus that should benefit local hotels, restaurants and shops.
Next year, Homer will see at least four cruise ships scheduled at the dock, Davis said.
As for the wastewater discharge standards that were rolled back this week, Davis said he felt it made sense.
“The ballot initiative required higher discharge standards of cruise ships than our City of Homer,” Davis said. “There is no technology out there that allows them to consistently meet the standards set.”
In the cruise ship itinerary changes, Southeast will see an increase in traffic – over 1 million passengers this summer, Davis said. The Norwegian Cruise Line, new to Alaska, will be making voyages there in addition to the traditional cruise lines.
Seaton’s aide, Louie Flora, who sat in on discussions before HB 80 passed, said the argument about municipal wastewater versus cruise ship wastewater is faulty.
“It’s an apples to oranges argument,” he said. Municipal discharge can be tested and its “constituency” is known. Cruise ship water discharged in an ocean mixing zone can’t be fully monitored by the DEC. Also, one cruise ship may discharge its water in a spot that is also dumped in by another cruise ship in a short time period. This creates an overlap in mixing zones.
As it stands now, Seaton said, cruise ships do not treat their wastewater to a level that complies with all of the standards set for clean water in Alaska.
“Their wastewater discharge often exceeds the acceptable concentration standards for ammonia, copper, and zinc. Under this legislation they would be able to use the dilution effect of designated mixing zones to render their discharge compliant,” Seaton wrote in an early newsletter on the bill.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblyman Mako Haggerty recalled back to 2006 when the citizen’s initiative was circulated.
“We did it because we wanted (the cruise ship industry) to clean up their act. We voted on it. It was passed. When it came to collecting signatures, it was one of the quickest to collect,” Haggerty said. Like the Coastal Zone Management Initiative, that narrowly lost this summer, that ballot measure was concerned about protecting wildlife and marine biota through protecting water.
The cruise ship discharge initiative did do a good job, he said.
“I think because of that initiative, they were forced to clean up their act. They have systems that do a very good job of cleaning some of the waste streams. The water they discharge now is better than what it was once upon a time,” Haggerty said.
But the heavy metal discharges remain the biggest problem.
“The voters decided they want clean water. The governor and
administration decided they want to be buddies with the cruise ship industry. That’s the difference,” he added.
The head tax on cruise ship passengers is a boon to port towns, but its use is limited. According to state law, cruise ship head tax revenue can only be used for projects that benefits the cruise ships – bathrooms, signage, trails.
For Homer, that means extra bathrooms that won’t be necessary in years when cruise ships don’t arrive. Whereas, spending the money on a community center or to save a Boys and Girls Club is prohibited, Haggerty points out.
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