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Alaska cruise ships show off wastewater operations
Scripps Howard News Service


June 18, 2008

JUNEAU, Alaska -- The tour begins in places cruise-ship passengers never see: the sewage treatment room at the bottom of the hull.

It ends in a plush onboard restaurant called the Pinnacle Grill, where the guests are treated to a lunch of tiger prawns, beef tenderloin and chocolate brownie decadence.

Who gets such a weird tour of a luxurious cruise ship?

State legislators, Alaska government officials and members of civic organizations.

Cruise industry advocates are staging the tours in Alaska ports where ships bring hundreds of thousands of glacier-gazing tourists each summer.

Their message is that cruise ships are clean, discharging far less dirty water and toxic wastes into the sea than they once did.

The subtext is more political.

The Alaska cruise industry has been on the defensive in recent years, with stricter pollution enforcement and millions of dollars in new taxes.

Now ship operators are facing state requirements to purify their wastewater to tougher standards.

Industry representatives say they can't meet the pending limits for levels of copper and other metals. It could mean cruise passengers, the bedrock of Alaska's tourism industry, might stop at fewer ports and experience less of the state, the cruise companies say.

John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, which represents cruise lines such as Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, said the industry plans to ask state lawmakers for relief.

"We'll take it to the Legislature and say, hey, let's put some common sense back into the law," said Binkley, a former Alaska legislator.

Part of the industry's strategy is to give government and civic leaders an "environmental tour" of the cruise ships.

A group of Alaska politicians toured the Zaandam, a Holland America ship, recently.

The Zaandam is one of eight ocean liners Seattle-based Holland America sails in Alaska.

The tour starts in the Zaandam's spacious movie theater, where the captain and the rest of the ship's top officers greet the guests.

A video explains how Holland America has spent $40 million upgrading equipment to handle dirty water and other wastes on its ships.

Then the walking tour begins through the ugly parts of what is otherwise a resplendent vessel.

On the working decks down below, Filipino and Indonesian crewmen fold napkins in the laundry room and sort rubbish in the garbage room.

The Zaandam's chief engineer, Tom Mahon, draws a glass of clear water out of the ship's sewage treatment system and hands it to Alaska Rep. Andrea Doll, who holds it up to the light.

Cruise ships still discharge wastewater into Alaska seas, but the discharges are far cleaner than they once were, the tour guides explain.

The tour wraps up in the Pinnacle Grill, where the server pours wine and delivers the sumptuous entrees.

The cruise industry came under fire beginning in the mid-1990s, with some lines convicted of criminal violations and fined millions of dollars for illegal dumping in southeast Alaska.

In 2006, Alaska voters passed a ballot initiative requiring large cruise ships to carry "ocean rangers" to monitor their environmental performance. The initiative also levied a $50 state tax on each cruise-ship passenger, and required operators to have new state permits setting limits on the level of certain pollutants in wastewater the ships flush overboard.

But Binkley and other industry advocates say the permit limits are so tight they could force ships to hold and haul waste for dumping in seas under federal jurisdiction farther offshore.

That could shorten the time some ships and their free-spending passengers can stay in Alaska ports, or eliminate some stops altogether, they say.

By law, state legislators can change an initiative's requirements two years after voters pass it, and Binkley said the industry will seek adjustments.

Denise Koch, cruise-ship program manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, agreed the pollution limits for cruise ships are stringent, especially for levels of copper, zinc, nickel and ammonia.

That's why the state in March gave cruise lines a grace period, until 2010, to fully comply, she said.

Gershon Cohen, a cruise industry watchdog, views the ship tours with suspicion. He believes the cruise lines are laying the groundwork to dismantle the 2006 initiative.

While the cruise lines have done a fine job in removing sewage solids and bacteria, they have wasted time on finding ways to rid wastewater of metals harmful to fish, he said.

Elected officials who toured the Zaandam said they realized it was a public relations event designed to cast the industry in the best light.

Rep. Doll said she supported the cruise-ship initiative and will face a tough decision if the industry seeks changes.

Her husband, Bob Doll, said the cruise ships and the thousands of tourists they pour out onto the docks are a hugely important part of the economy. The cruise lines, he believes, have cured their pollution problems.

"I don't believe it's an issue," said Doll, standing on the dock after his Zaandam tour. "We've had a tangible demonstration today of why it is not."


E-mail Wesley Loy at wloy(at)
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Ketchikan, Alaska