Due to legislation resulting from the cruise ship initiative that Alaska citizens passed two years ago, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation now imposes limits on discharged trace metals. Cruise ships were given a grace period until 2010 to comply with those standards, but John Binkley, head of the ACA, explains in an interview with Travel Weekly senior editor Johanna Jainchill why cruise ships cannot meet the new standards.
Q: Why can't cruise ships meet the new discharge standards?
A: They set it to a limit that's impossible to reach. That was a nuance in the law that really made it not only impossible for us to attain the levels for those permits but tied the hands of regulators so they can't regulate and make judgments based on science as to what those levels should be.
Q: You said it is a higher standard than for treated wastewater discharged by Alaskan municipalities?
A: Oh yes, multiple times. The law now says, through the initiative, that this is the way you must do it with cruise ships and cruise ships only. ... No community in Alaska would be able to discharge any of their treated waste if they were held to this standard. Ships could not even discharge drinking water from any port in Alaska under those terms.
Q: Why can't the industry put the technology on their ships to comply with the discharge levels the initiative calls for?
A: The technology to meet the copper standard simply does not exist. The industry spent $200 million when the legislature convened a scientific panel and did the research and said: Here are the levels we'd like you to attain. They were the highest levels of any place in the world for the discharge. The industry responded and said yes, we can do that, we'll invest the money to put the system onboard with the best technology available, and we will meet those standards. As a result, wherever those cruise ships go they've got those new systems onboard with a high-quality effluent.
Q: Would you drink that effluent?
A: I have. It's not drinking water, and we don't ever recommend that anybody does drink it, but I have.
Q: It is the level of trace metals that are at issue. What damage can they do?
A: [People] drink a huge amount of copper. They put it in vitamins for those of us getting a little older. So from a human standpoint it's insignificant. Aquatic life is more sensitive to some of these metals. They set standards that are safe for fish to live in water. But no fish lives in our [ships'] system. [The level of metal] disperses so quickly as soon as it hits the ocean that the parts [of copper] per billion go down so rapidly and dramatically it is of no harm to aquatic life.
Q: Don't you think some Alaskans would say the cruise industry is trying to get around good environmentalism?
A: I think most people will apply common sense to it, particularly when the agency responsible for the environment says that this would cause no harm to the waters of Alaska. That's how they justified ... the two-year extension. Because it's not doing any harm.
Q: What are some options the industry has to deal with this?
A: The best situation would be a legislative change next January when, after two years, a voter initiative can be changed or even eliminated. Another possible solution is ... to get municipalities to build infrastructure to receive some of the wastewater from the cruise lines while they are in port. Another option is holding the treated wastewater until we get into federal waters. Some lines may have to look at altering schedules and itineraries to do that, and it consumes a huge amount of fuel.
To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.