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My Turn: Let’s talk about wastewater

By Win Gruening

Juneau Empire Editorial

Individuals and organizations criticizing recent changes to Alaska’s cruise ship wastewater discharge permits have once again attracted press coverage. The issue revolves around vessel discharges that may occur while docked in port as well as underway. Their implication is that cruise ships discharging wastewater are polluting our public waterways and harbors with treated sewage, or “blackwater,” and our water quality and marine ecosystems will be forever compromised.

Under new Alaska Department of Conservation rules, large cruise vessels need only meet clean water requirements after their wastewater has been diluted in an area that trails behind the ship, called a “mixing zone,” instead of at the point of discharge. Cruise line critics complain that measuring discharges within mixing zones results in inaccurate testing.

However, critics seem to be missing the boat because they choose to ignore how clean and safe the treated water really is and the rigorous and frequent monitoring process that takes place to ensure compliance.

The large cruise ships that ply the Inside Passage all subscribe to voluntary industry-wide environmental standards that are far more restrictive than those governing many other industries. They also comply with the extremely stringent discharge limits imposed by DEC.

Ironically, these limits, for the most part, are much more restrictive than those required of Juneau’s three sewage treatment plants or our Alaska state ferries. Furthermore, Juneau’s sewage treatment plants are allowed to measure their effluent within a mixing zone — the same necessary concession that environmental organizations claim is not accurate when applied to cruise ships.

All of the large cruise ships visiting Southeast that are permitted to discharge treated wastewater are using state-of-the-art tertiary treatment systems that produce sterilized drinking quality water at the end of their discharge pipe. I personally tasted the water from one of these systems and I couldn’t detect any difference from regular tap water. However, discharges from larger state ferries and effluent from all three of Juneau’s sewage treatment plants don’t reach this level of quality and, in fact, are dumped directly into the open ocean as well as the Mendenhall River, Gastineau Channel and Auke Bay.

During a five-month season, a large cruise ship spending about 100 days in Alaskan waters might discharge an average as high as 150,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day. This sounds like a lot until you realize that Juneau’s sewage treatment plants together discharge approximately 4.5 million gallons of effluent daily — 365 days a year — over 100 times the volume of a cruise vessel in a season. And that is only in Juneau. Other Southeast Alaska municipal treatment plants are discharging even more. The Mendenhall plant, Juneau’s largest treatment facility which has been plagued with technical difficulties for years, has often exceeded Marine Water Quality Standards (MWQS) which are less restrictive than those required of the cruise industry.

While state ferries may discharge considerably less than cruise ships, many operate year round and while complying with their relatively lax state-approved best practices, routinely exceed Alaska MWQS and cruise ship standards. The most recent full year sample reports from DEC show fecal coliform bacteria counts for the Malaspina and Columbia as high as 65 to 15,000 times the maximum Alaska MWQS. The Matanuska logged a sample reading so high it couldn’t be counted. Other tests of ferry discharges indicate similar results. Dissolved copper, often cited by environmentalists as very harmful to the environment, reflected as high as 1,000 times Alaska’s marine standards.

In that 2014 report, the five largest Alaska state ferries were tested an average of three times all year. However, all large cruise ships are required to be formally tested twice monthly in addition to no notice testing, which amounts to hundreds of vessel inspections in a season. In addition, industry-funded ocean rangers visit or ride on all large cruise ships to monitor environmental compliance.

Even smaller ships like the Aurora class ferries that do not discharge into the ocean and hold their wastewater are more damaging to the environment than cruise ships. This is because their blackwater is just transferred to local municipal facilities like Juneau that can only partially process it before it is discharged back into the ocean.

With all these facts available, one has to wonder what the true motivations of cruise industry protesters are. If the environmental organizations fighting cruise ship discharge guidelines were truly concerned about marine water quality, they would be devoting their energy and money to help correct clean water issues affecting the state ferries and municipalities in Southeast, instead of beating up a cruise industry that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading their wastewater systems to the most advanced technology possible.

It probably wouldn’t help their organizations’ fundraising efforts but it would be the right thing to do.

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