Alaska cruise ship policy under court scrutiny

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A court ruling in Alaska has thrown into question some of the state's environmental oversight policies concerning water pollution from cruise ships.

A Superior Court judge in Juneau has instructed the state's Department of Environmental Conservation to explain how it determined that wastewater permits could be issued to cruise ships regardless of the type of pollution prevention technologies each vessel uses.

The lawsuit was filed by two environmental groups after their request for an administrative appeal of the permits was denied by the DEC last August. The groups had questioned the legality of the Large Commercial Passenger Vessel Wastewater Permits.

The court ruling has no bearing on the cruise ship permits currently in force, since they are valid through the 2012 season.

The case has a long history. In 2006, voters approved a ballot measure that requires cruise ships to meet Alaska Water Quality Standards at the point of discharge. This was the same ballot initiative that raised head taxes on cruise passengers and ignited a firestorm of opposition from the cruise lines, some of which temporarily pulled ships from the Alaska market.

The taxes were subsequently lowered, and implementation of the discharge standards was pushed back to 2010. But as it became apparent that the cruise lines could not, or would not, meet the new pollution discharge limits in time for the 2010 permits, the state Legislature in 2009 amended the statute to delay full implementation of the discharge rules until 2016 and to allow the DEC to issue three-year, general permits with wastewater limits less stringent than the Alaska Water Quality Standards.

It could issue these permits, the amendment indicated, if the DEC found that each line is using "economically feasible methods of pollution prevention, control and treatment that the department considers to be the most technologically effective."

The groups that brought the case to Superior Court, Earth Island Institute's Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters and Friends of the Earth, charged that the DEC's 2010 cruise ship discharge permits "ignored the plain language of the law, allowing every ship to continue discharging pollutants at current levels by claiming [that] any technology already in use would be considered the most effective."

The suit, filed by Earthjustice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm in Oakland, Calif., also named the Alaska Cruise Association as a defendant.

Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins, in her June 6 decision, remanded the case to the DEC, requiring it to explain its permitting decision. She also ruled that the two environmental groups have standing to intervene in the case and have the right to seek an administrative appeal from the DEC.

Gershon Cohen, project director of the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters, said the DEC's general permits, which were issued without regard to the type of wastewater system each cruise ship uses, "rewards the worst-performing ships" by giving them a pass on installing more effective equipment, even though the more advanced water treatment systems are "demonstrated to exist and be technologically and economically feasible by several ships in the fleet."

The DEC referred questions to the state Office of the Attorney General, where staff lawyer Lindsay Wolter maintained the DEC "did not run afoul of the law."

"The court saw some things lacking and needs a more complete consideration" from the DEC, she said, noting that "the court didn't throw the [existing permit] out."

That distinction doesn't impress Cohen, however. "Trying to minimize the importance of the ruling by saying the permit wasn't invalidated, when in fact the court has asked the DEC to explain all of its assumptions, is putting makeup on a pig. It still ain't pretty," he said.

John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, said all of the association's member lines meet or exceed the state's standards, which are "the strongest wastewater-discharge standards [for cruise ships] in the world."

"With the judge's ruling, those standards are still required through our permits and continue to remain in place," Binkley said.

The court did not set a deadline for the DEC's response.

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