ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Companies operating large cruise ships in Alaska waters have agreed to not dump wastewater within 10 miles of certain ports.
The move falls short of what environmentalists sought. But state and federal officials call it a significant step by cruise lines to regain credibility after felony convictions of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Holland America Line for illegal dumping.
The companies admitted dumping dry cleaning fluids, photo-processing chemicals and oil in Southeast Alaska waters and then lying about it.
Following discussions in Juneau with the Coast Guard last week, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and environmentalists, the cruise industry voluntarily agreed not to discharge any pollution until their ships are at least 10 miles from the port they've just left and are traveling at least six knots. They'll also cease dumping when the ships are within 10 miles of the next port.
The agreement is similar to legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, last month.
''Alaska is setting the precedent for the rest of the nation'' on cruise ship practices, said Randy Ray, president of the United States Cruise Ship Association. How cruise ship wastewater is handled is going to be revolutionized, he said.
Existing law allows cruise ships to discharge an unlimited volume of treated sewage and wastewater anywhere. Raw sewage may be legally dumped beyond three miles from shore, although the cruise lines insist they never discharge untreated waste.
The public, and Southeast Alaskans in particular, has spoken out in recent months about the safety of public swimming areas as well as salmon, whales, shellfish and other marine life that come in contact with waste products and chemicals pumped out of ships.
The industry has said that its illegal practices have stopped, and that its discharges are cleaner than what Southeast communities put into the water.
Environmentalists wanted the cruise ships to refrain from dumping within 10 miles of any port, but the industry found that to be too restrictive, said Tim June, a Haines resident and member of Lynn Canal Conservation.
Under the new agreement, a ship traveling from Skagway to Glacier Bay could discharge after rounding the Chilkat Peninsula, within a few miles of a Haines swimming beach, June said. That's where Royal Caribbean did some of its illegal dumping, he pointed out.
He noted that Royal Caribbean has agreed not to discharge between Skagway and Haines. Other companies say they'll try not to as long as their ships have enough holding capacity.
Another aspect that troubles environmentalists is that cruise ships could still discharge in places like Point Adolphus, a popular feeding area for humpback whales near the mouth of Glacier Bay.
David Rogers, a DEC manager involved in the pollution discussions, said he's pleased with the steps the industry has taken. Rogers said a scientific working group is being formed to assess what areas in Southeast Alaska ere sensitive are and whether the 10-mile policy is adequate and scientifically sound.
A Coast Guard official heading the discussions noted that the program is voluntary and there's no enforcement mechanism.
''There's not going to be anyone out there in their scuba gear to see if they're discharging or not,'' said Lt. Cmdr. Spencer Wood.
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