Alaska Senate delays vote on cruise ship wastewater bill

A cruise ships heads out of Juneau’s harbor last summer. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

A vote on a controversial bill involving cruise ship waste has been put off until next week.

House Bill 80 would strike provisions of a citizen’s initiative requiring cruise ships to meet clean water standards at the point of discharge by the 2016 season, and allow the vessels to release waste into mixing zones. The bill was introduced by the governor’s office, and it easily passed the House last week.

During a floor hearing Wednesday, Democrats made five attempts to amend the bill. Some received support from coastal Republicans, but all amendments ultimately failed. The most popular would have kept the current cruise ship regulations in place, but it would have given vessels more time to meet stricter standards. Five Democrats were joined by Republicans Peter Micciche of Soldotna and Bert Stedman of Sitka in voting for the amendment. Ten Republicans voted against it.

Senator Cathy Giessel, a Republican from Anchorage, argued against the amendment by citing a report from a state science panel, which states that incoming wastewater standards would be impossible for cruise ships to meet.

“The science advisory panel which most recently met found that there is no more advanced technology available, nor is there any technology on the horizon coming down the track, to improve the wastewater discharge that is currently in place,” Giessel said.

But Senator Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, took issue with that reasoning. The report issued by the cruise ship science panel has come into question after one of its members publicly disagreed with its findings. It came under additional scrutiny this weekend, after the Anchorage Daily News found evidence that the panel’s report was never supposed to be considered final.

“The panel was misled, and that’s really unfortunate that they were misled on two key points,” said French. “One, they were told that they would be able to finish their work. Two, they were told their report would never be the basis for legislation.”

The bill is scheduled to come back for a final reading on the Senate floor on February 19th. Following the floor session, Majority Leader John Coghill said that the reason for delaying the vote was to give three absent senators the chance to vote on the bill. Democrats Lyman Hoffman and Donny Olson, and Kodiak Republican Gary Stevens were all excused from Wednesday’s floor session.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has previously stated that they would like to have cruise ship permitting rules finalized by February 15. DEC did not respond to a request for comment on how the delayed vote would affect their timeline.

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