Random cruise ship checks show higher-than-expected bacteria levels

Posted: Monday, July 31, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- The first random checks of cruise ship wastewater in Southeast revealed higher levels of bacteria than state environmental officials expected.

Voluntary restrictions on when and where cruise ships discharge their treated sewage may be to blame, said Mike Conway of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

''It's wasn't quite as simple as we thought,'' Conway told the Juneau Empire.

The results of testing of the first two samples taken from cruise ships showed fecal coliform levels 3 1/2 times higher than what would be expected for treated wastewater, said Conway, director of the Division of Statewide Public Service.

Though the reason for the high levels hasn't been confirmed, it appears the samples may have been kept too warm for too long, from the time they were taken to the time they reached a Juneau lab.

Another factor may be new procedures practiced by cruise ships in Southeast, Conway said. Rather than discharging the treated wastewater anywhere, which is legal, cruise ship companies have said they would have their vessels hold the water and discharge it only when 10 miles from the nearest port of call.

Conway, by not dumping the treated wastewater quickly, the ships may be giving bacteria more time to grow. Officials hadn't thought of that when the voluntary restriction was put in place.

''Before we got the sample, we thought it just made sense,'' he said. ''Is that backfiring?''

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Spencer Wood said the random checks will continue through the end of the summer. Some 22 cruise ships will be tested two times each, with three samples of treated wastewater taken each time, he said. The system of testing the water needs work, Wood said.

''We found some problems with our protocols,'' he said Friday. ''We hope to have good results by the end of the season.''

Under the terms of the voluntary testing program, the names of the ships tested is kept secret.

For the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the voluntary testing program isn't enough. Given admissions by two cruise ship companies that they've illegally polluted Southeast waters in the past, the council says regulations should be put in place.

''The record shows that they (cruise ship companies) can't be trusted,'' said SEACC's Aurah Landau.

John Hansen, president of the Northwest Cruise Ship Association, said the various agencies and companies will continue to try to figure out a way to sample and test the wastewater that leads to scientifically valid results.

Hansen said the testing program has been harder than he thought. Conway and Wood said the same thing.

''The logistics of putting this program together has been more complicated than, I think, anybody thought.''

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