JUNEAU (AP) -- State and federal officials sketched out plans Wednesday for monitoring water and air emissions from cruise ships, while environmentalists called the proposals vague and questioned whether they would have any effect when they begin this summer.
The meeting of the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative was intended to gather public comment on a draft report by the group made up of state and federal environmental regulators, the Coast Guard, the cruise ship industry, and citizen representatives.
However, the public was mostly absent, and nearly all of the comment came from environmentalists unhappy with the extent of the monitoring and of penalties for past violations.
''We are asking that this industry be held to the same standards that every other industry is held to,'' said Tim June of Lynn Canal Conservation.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Michele Brown started the initiative in December in response to accusations of dumping against the cruise ship industry. Both government and industry officials hope to improve the industry's practices and image without resorting to full-scale regulation.
Brown said the monitoring scheduled for this summer will provide a base of facts about the industry that can be used to set policies in the future.
The group has agreed in general on a plan to test wastewater and sewage discharges from each ship twice during the cruise ship season, but some details have yet to be worked out. The samples would be tested by an independent lab, but the results would be kept confidential unless a water quality violation was discovered.
''We're still in the throes of refining it to a protocol that can be accepted both by industry and community groups,'' said Lt. Cmdr. Spencer Wood of the Coast Guard.
Nancy Wheatley, Royal Caribbean Cruises' senior vice president for safety and environment, said the lines have agreed to install testing valves near the ports the ships use to discharge waste while traveling.
However, finding space for on-board monitors could be a problem because the ships have few berths free and sometimes travel for days without stopping at a port.
''There's a lot of logistics in terms of getting people on the ship,'' Wheatley said.
Testing wastewater and sewage in holding tanks while the ships are in port also presents problems because various substances could either settle to the bottom or float to the top, making it difficult to get a representative sample, Wheatley said.
For conservation groups and others concerned about the cruise industry's impacts in Alaska, the holdup smacked of business as usual.
''Are we really going to see something that we haven't seen in the past?'' asked Robert Reges, an attorney with Cruise Control, a Juneau group concerned about the industry's growth.
''Things happen one step at a time,'' responded Dean Brown, chairman of the North West CruiseShip Association, which represents the major cruise lines that operate in Alaska.
Cruise ships bring more than 500,000 passengers to Alaska each year and dump millions of gallons of wastewater -- known as graywater -- and treated sewage -- called black water -- into the Inside Passage.
Meanwhile, air pollution monitors would measure particulate matter and sulfur dioxide in downtown Juneau, where smoke from the ships often gathers under the capital city's cloud cover.
David Rogers, a manager in DEC's Division of Air and Water Quality, said similar tests in previous years found no significant health hazard caused by the smokestacks. The state's cruise ship air pollution monitoring program was halted in 1996 because of budget cuts.
After the federal Environmental Protection Agency took over monitoring, six cruise ship operators were cited in March for exceeding state and federal air pollution limits in Alaska last year.
Sue Schrader of the Alaska Conservation Alliance reported seeing the Jubilee, a Carnival Cruise Lines ship among those cited, sail into Juneau this month with dark smoke billowing from its stack.
''We watched it belch a huge cloud of black smoke,'' Schrader said. ''Is that ship still in violation? And if it is, why is it coming into Juneau?''
Last year, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Holland America Line Westours Inc., were convicted of illegally polluting the Inside Passage. Royal Caribbean was fined $6.5 million. Holland America paid $1 million in fines and $1 million in restitution.
The cruise lines also faced allegations that they had legally dumped raw sewage and ground-up food waste in areas known as ''doughnut holes'' that are within the Inside Passage but more than 3 miles from shore.
Peninsula Clarion ©2015. All Rights Reserved.