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Cruise industry responds to community concerns about environmental impacts

Disney and Princess cruise ships in Juneau last summer.
Disney and Princess cruise ships in Juneau’s harbor in 2012. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Last summer, Juneau saw a spike in the number of complaints made to state regulators about cruise ship emissions.

With another cruise season about to begin, the tourism industry and the city are both looking at ways to respond to public concerns about air quality.

John Binkley, executive director of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, said the cruise industry is committed to addressing complaints about Juneau’s air quality in summer.

One solution they’re trying out is adjusting schedules to reduce the amount of time ships spend waiting for other ships to leave so they can dock — especially on days with more boat traffic.

“This year, instead of idling out there and starting to tender early, they’ll wait till the other ship is ready to leave, then come into the harbor. The first ship will leave and the second ship will come right into the dock,” Binkley said, speaking at a public forum about tourism sustainability hosted by the Juneau Commission on Sustainability last week.

This summer, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation will collect air quality data using sensors placed around downtown.

Community member Karla Hart brought up the state’s Ocean Ranger program that places inspectors on board cruise ships to monitor pollution.

The program is facing potential cuts from the Legislature after this summer. She asked Binkley to do something about it.

“I’m wondering if you would commit your political power, which I have seen in action in the Capitol, to go up there and make sure that the Ocean Ranger program stays in effect,” Hart said.

But Binkley said his industry never supported the Ocean Rangers to begin with, even if it has learned to live with the program since voters approved using the state cruise ship passenger fee to pay for it in 2006.

“If their policy is to keep them on board, we’re fine with that. If their policy is to not have them on board, we’re fine with that. So either way, we’re happy with the outcome,” he said.

Binkley also said CLIAA is looking forward to a closer working relationship with the City and Borough of Juneau going forward.

It’s been a month since CLIAA signed the settlement agreement with the city, ending three years of litigation over how Juneau collects and spends passenger fees.

The city is now free to continue using proceeds from the fee to pay for crossing guards and other tourism-related projects.

One of those proposals includes a $250,000 study on what it would take to expand shore power access at the cruise ship docks. That would allow for large cruise ships to run on local hydroelectric power instead of running their engines while in port.

Juneau was the first port in the world to connect cruise ships to shore power, but it still only has one dock hooked up.

Andy Romanoff of Renewable Juneau thinks the city has spent enough time studying the idea and is pushing for it to do more. Romanoff handed out buttons saying “Plug ‘em in!” at the sustainability forum. He asked the panel to support local efforts to electrify more docks.

A logo promotes the electrification of cruise ship docks. (Image courtesy Renewable Juneau)

“There’s a large segment of Juneau’s population who is basically sick and tired of the smoke and the congestion and the health impacts of the summer ships,” Romanoff said.

Romanoff said the city needs to move ahead on expanding shore power, like other port communities already have. He pointed out that a study has already been done as recently as 2016.

He’s also frustrated because the Juneau Commission on Sustainability submitted a proposal to use $3.5 million in passenger fees for design and construction for another electrified dock.

“We know what works, we know how to do it and it’s pretty easy to find out who out there can do it,” Romanoff said. “So it’s just time to do it.”

The first cruise ship of the season arrives Sunday.

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