JUNEAU, Alaska -- The House decided Monday to roll back pollution standards voted into law by the 2006 cruise-ship initiative, allowing cruise vessels to dump ammonia, copper and other contaminants into Alaska waters.
House Bill 80 passed 27-9 as the fourth week of the legislative session got underway. For a major piece of environmental legislation, it breezed through the House where its only committee, House Resources, reported it out without amendment last week.
The bill was requested by Gov. Sean Parnell and now goes to the Senate, where a companion bill has already passed the Senate Resources Committee and is awaiting action at its last stop before the floor, the Finance Committee.
The speed of the bill's passage, and the inability of opponents to change it, may represent a sign of things to come in Juneau, where state government is under one-party rule for the first time in years. Republicans control the governor's office and three-fourths of each legislative chamber. They made reduced regulations, resource development, lowered taxes and a business-friendly climate their mantra during the elections and since.
An advisory panel to the Department of Environmental Conservation said the cruise industry has been effective at cleaning up most the conventional sewage produced by its floating towns that bring nearly a million people to Alaska each summer. By the mid-2000s, cruise ships either upgraded to advanced treatment facilities, pumped their sewage into municipal plants when they docked, or traveled outside the three-mile limit to dump in federal jurisdiction, away from the most productive coastal waters.
The new treatment systems produced sewage with low counts of fecal coliform bacteria and total dissolved solids and were generally cleaner than most municipal systems in Alaska. But the 2006 cruise-ship voter initiative, in part a reaction to earlier sewage dumping by the industry, applied clean-water standards at the point of discharge into the ocean. Ships have consistently failed to reduce discharges of ammonia and heavy metals to those standards.
In 2009, the Legislature delayed implementation of the initiative and told DEC to create a panel of experts to look into whether it was technologically and economically possible by 2015.
The panel, with strong dissent, said in a preliminary report in November that the standards couldn't be achieved with existing equipment and suggested that dilution of ammonia and metals to safe levels would be achieved seconds after wastewater hit the sea.
The governor's bills -- House Bill 80 and Senate Bill 29 -- would permanently accept the weaker standards, choosing dilution over treatment. The bills also end the advisory panel's job two years early, cancel at least one public workshop or conference the panel was required to hold, and cancel the final report of the DEC on compliance and technology that would have been due on Jan. 1, 2015.
The bill was ushered to the House floor by the co-chairman of House Resources, Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River. Saddler described the 2006 standards as "not attainable."
"Why should we retain standards on the books that are impossible to meet?" he asked. He and other Republicans said it was wrong to hold the cruise industry to a higher standard than municipal systems or other vessels, like state ferries -- which bunk far fewer people than cruise ships.
House Democrats from Anchorage had some suggestions.