Did you know that there are cruise ships allowed to discharge wastewater while tied up or anchored in port? Industry representatives and state officials say it is safe. But critics fear it is fouling local harbors.
Six cruise ships currently release treated sewage into harbors.
Norwegian Pearl pulls up at one of the cruise-ship berths in Ketchikan. Many of her nearly 2,400 guests head out onto the docks. NCL Pearl is one of a dozen big cruise ships allowed to discharge their treated wastewater in Juneau, Ketchikan and some other Alaska harbors.
Six, including Norwegian Pearl, have permits covering treated sewage, named "blackwater". Those vessels, plus six others, have also permits to discharge laundry, shower and kitchen runoff, known as "graywater".
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has issued permits for “stationary discharges” under new rules since summer 2014. DEC Environmental Program Specialist Ed White said it had to be treated wastewater through advanced wastewater treatment system. He added that technology made it possible to discharge while stationary and some cruise ships were even allowed to do it under an older permit system that measured pollutants directly coming out of the ships.
The new system allowed samples to be taken immediately after being diluted in the so called mixing zone. That was a proposal by former Gov. Sean Parnell and in 2013 approved by the Legislature, at the urging of industry.
Parnell said they had some additional requirements for the ships discharging while stationary. They had to take water samples both onboard and also in the water in order to measure what happened in that mixing zone. The zone for most harbors is 82 meters (90 yards) from point of discharge, or about a third the length of Norwegian Pearl.
According to White, the ships may be stationary, but currents and tides meant the water was not. He said they had some restrictions. In Skagway, for example, there was a dock where there would be an overlap and ships either couldn’t discharge there or would get a smaller mixing zone if they could meet those requirements.
The dozen cruise ships were issued individual permits while an up-to-date permit system is on appeal. Daven Hafey of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), the largest environmental group in the region, said they felt the new general permit did the clean water of Alaska and the citizens of Alaska a big disservice. He added that new wastewater treatment systems were an improvement but not good enough to fully protect shellfish, fish and people.
“Our research shows that Alaska would really be the only place in the entire world that would allow cruise ships of this size to dump those wastes and partially treated waste while tied up to a dock,” he said.
Cruise industry disagreed.
According to John Binkley, president of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Alaska chapter, the water really was virtually drinking water quality when it was discharged from the vessels. He said releasing treated wastewater in harbors posed no threat and it was a pretty advanced system. The final process was sterilization of the water and it was really pretty pure water that came out.
In addition to the twelve cruise vessels granted stationary discharge permits, six other are allowed to discharge while underway, diluting the waste further. 18 ships had the permit to release wastewater last summer. According to White, of state Department of Environmental Conservation, another 14 did not. He said that typically about half the cruise ships in the last few years held their wastewater and then treated it in whatever way they had and discharged it offshore. And that’s beyond the regulatory reach of Alaska.
White added that ammonia and copper were among the pollutants measured. There was always going to be impact of any human activity, so the goal was to minimize this impact and to restrict any impacts that could cause significant harm.
In 2006 stronger wastewater treatment standards were a part of an initiative passed by Alaska voters. The current permitting system replaced those standards. SEACC appealed the general permit, despite the state had rejected all but one of its points. Officials said they didn’t know when that would be heard. Meanwhile, individual permits still allow the same thing.
An interesting fact is that during a 5-month season, a large cruise vessel spending around 100 days in Alaska might discharge nearly 150,000 gallons treated wastewater per day. However, all Juneau’s sewage treatment plants discharge 4.5 mill gallons of effluent daily, and that's 365 days a year, more than 100 times the volume of a cruise ship in a season; only in Juneau. Other Southeast Alaska treatment plants discharge even more. The largest treatment facility in Juneau, Mendenhall plant, which has had technical difficulties for years, often exceeded MWQS (Marine Water Quality Standards) which are less restrictive than the ones required of cruise industry.