When voters head to the polls next year, they could be faced with questions on oil taxes, the minimum wage, and the use of recreational marijuana. But one thing that won’t be on the ballot is a referendum on a controversial bill concerning cruise ship waste.
Now that it’s summer, cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers loom over Juneau’s waterfront. Just a few months before, the showers, the sinks, and yes, the toilets aboard these massive vessels were a top concern for lawmakers. They passed a bill rolling back parts of a citizen’s initiative governing waste water standards.
But not everyone was happy with that legislation.
“We were surprised, shocked, disappointed, and we felt betrayed by the whole thing.”
That’s Chip Thoma. He’s the president of Responsible Cruising for Alaska, and he was one of the lead organizers of the cruise ship initiative that passed in 2006.
On top of implementing a head tax, the citizens’ initiative also required cruise ships to meet wastewater standards at the point of discharge. Basically, any water they released had to be fully treated. That portion was struck down by the legislature in February, with the cruise industry arguing that those standards were impossible to meet.
Thoma thinks that change ignored the will of voters. Even so, he doesn’t plan on taking the issue back to the ballot box. He says his group ultimately chose not to go ahead with a referendum repealing the wastewater discharge bill.
“We decided it’d be extremely expensive, extremely hard to gather the signatures in 90 days for our initiative.”
By his estimate, a campaign would have cost his group at least half a million dollars. Thoma says they would have needed to launch a huge voter education effort, especially since there are so many other issues that could also be on the ballot.
“It’s a lot simpler if people know that it’s a ‘giveaway’ of oil and there should be recreational use of marijuana — things like that. Those are clear-cut issues. This one on rolling back the water standards or making them comply with the copper standards, it’s just a little too complex for most people to address.”
Thoma says that his group is now focusing its attention on a lawsuit concerning the enforcement of an emissions control area off Alaska, which would require vessels to use more expensive low-sulfur fuel. The State of Alaska filed the lawsuit against the federal government last year, on the grounds that “there is no environmental justification” for the area and that such policy requires congressional approval.
As far as how the wastewater discharge bill has been implemented, not much has changed so far.
“This season, the cruise ships are operating under exactly the same permit they’ve been operating under since 2010,” says Michelle Bonnet Hale, who directs the water division at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “So, the only difference this season is that we were able to extend that permit.”
If the wastewater discharge bill hadn’t passed, cruise ships would have needed to renew their permit if they wanted to release waste in Alaska waters. The permit would have essentially been issued under the same legal framework, but there would have been a public comment period, and there’s the possibility that cruise ships would have seen the permit tweaked.
Hale says that the major effects of the legislation will be seen over the next couple of years, as her division considers authorizing “mixing zones,” where waste from cruise ships would be diluted. DEC is currently examining the impact such mixing zones would have on water quality and fish habitat.