Knowles blasts cruise ship industry over pollution tests

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles blasted the cruise ship industry Thursday, saying recent tests of the sewage and wastewater dumped by ships in the Inside Passage show disgraceful violations of state and federal pollution standards.

Preliminary results of a sampling program show that all 36 samples of treated sewage taken from 12 ships this summer exceeded federal standards for fecal coliform bacteria, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of samples of gray water -- the unregulated and untreated waste stream from sinks and showers -- exceeded those standards. Results from nine more ships -- along with more complete findings about the first 12 -- are expected in coming weeks.

''For an industry that depends on and markets Alaska's pristine beauty, this is not only unacceptable, it's a disgrace,'' Knowles said at a news conference on Juneau's rainy, wind-swept waterfront, where four massive ships disgorged thousands of passengers into the downtown tourist district.

Cruise ships bring more than 600,000 passengers a year to Alaska. The tourists pump millions of dollars into the economy but sometimes enrage locals by crowding the small port cities they visit.

''These ships alone would constitute the third-largest city in Southeast Alaska -- next to Juneau and Ketchikan -- sitting right here in this small harbor,'' Knowles said. ''A population this large creates a lot of waste. A single large cruise ship can discharge as much as 350,000 gallons every day.''

Knowles and Coast Guard Capt. Ed Page said the results could lead to charges against the lines.

John Hansen, president of the North West CruiseShip Association, said he was disappointed that the governor did not wait until testing was complete before going public.

''The results are not all in yet -- there's still testing going on,'' said Hansen, whose organization represents the major cruise lines that operate in Alaska. ''In terms of the coliform material, those numbers were surprising. If there are problems, we will fix them.''

When high-profile pollution cases brought cruise ship waste into the spotlight last summer, Hansen and other industry officials assured the public that all sewage was properly treated.

On Thursday, Hansen conceded that the lines had essentially trusted that their on-board sewage plants were producing wastewater that met legal guidelines.

''A lot of the data that we had at that time were based on manufacturers' specifications and Coast Guard inspections,'' Hansen said. ''We're learning about the chemistry of it now.''

Hansen stressed the industry's cooperation with the Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative, a task force of state and federal regulators, citizens and the industry that conducted the sampling. He also noted that several lines are installing and testing high-tech filtration equipment designed to purify wastewater to near-potable levels.

''People don't want to take vacations on ships that are polluting, so from a commercial standpoint, it makes sense,'' Hansen said.

Knowles also:

--Requested that each cruise line send its top executives to Juneau this fall to tell him what they know about the discharges, when they knew it and what they plan to do about it. Hansen said the lines would accept the invitation.

--Called on Congress to beef up federal laws, close loopholes that allow ships to dump untreated waste in some parts of the Inside Passage, and give the state authority to enforce its own laws against the ships. Right now, the Coast Guard must enforce the laws. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Frank Murkowski is pending in a House-Senate conference committee, Knowles said.

--Asked the Alaska Legislature to impose a fee on the cruise ships to pay for inspection and monitoring of the ships, but stopped short of describing the fee's amount or nature. Earlier this year, a $50 head tax on cruise ship passengers entering Alaska passed the state Senate, but died in a House committee.

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