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My Turn: Clarifying air quality

You would think from the recent front page articles across the state regarding cruise ships and air quality that our skies were blanketed with smoke and our air wasn’t fit to breathe. However, air quality over our coastal cities is not an issue despite the thousands of port calls made by cruise vessels in Alaska each year.

Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation recently issued 18 notices of violation to cruise companies for potentially violating smoke opacity guidelines over the past five years. Predictably, environmental activists and cruise line critics have weighed in, and some aren’t content with criticizing only the cruise industry but also the DEC with accusations of political favoritism.

Let’s place this issue in context. Over a period of five years, after taking over 1,300 readings of cruise ship smoke emissions, the DEC is examining 48 instances of possible violations by 18 different vessels. Unmentioned by the press, six of these incidents were self-reported. The actual number may go down once cruise companies provide mitigating factors to specific allegations. But when you spread this number over the 57 cruise ships that visited Alaska, the number is pretty small. This averages out to less than two incidents per month (during a five month season) and less than one incident per ship over the five year period.

The DEC Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental Compliance program regularly monitors cruise ship air emissions. Since 2000, a professional contractor has completed opacity readings on large cruise ships visiting Alaskan ports. Cruise ships are monitored by trained certified smoke readers who visually differentiate the opacity or density of ship emissions and flag those that can obscure visibility by more than 20 percent. Exceptions are made during engine start-up and docking maneuvers as well as other specified instances.

Despite the overall low incident rate, the total number that were flagged increased sharply over the last year and DEC has rightfully drawn attention to it. To date the cause of the increase has not been identified. There are many factors that can impact the opacity of a cruise ship’s engine emissions and not all are within the control of the captain or the cruise company. Weather conditions (especially temperature) and available fuel type and quality can affect emissions. Most Alaska cruise vessels use onboard opacity-monitoring technology to observe air emissions and, while data collected is useful in allowing environmental engineers to improve air systems, sometimes the readings will differ significantly from observations taken by certified smoke readers.

It’s in the cruise companies’ best interests to avoid this kind of controversy. An incident of this nature, aside from possible penalties, also signals onboard systems may not be operating correctly and this can impact the ship’s fuel efficiency and passenger experience.

It doesn’t make sense that cruise companies are willfully or negligently violating rules. Currently, they are making significant investments in new scrubber technology to ensure compliance with even more stringent EPA guidelines. Carnival recently announced that it is expanding installation of a new exhaust gas cleaning technology to 70 ships, an investment that could reach $400 million. Following development, testing and planning since 2010, Royal Caribbean Cruises will retrofit 19 of its ships with advanced emissions purification (AEP) systems, which will remove more than 97 percent of the sulfur emissions generated by the ships’ engines.

Aside from these investments in Alaska air quality, the cruise lines have proven to be responsible corporate citizens through their contributions to worthy local causes and positive impacts to our economy. Within Alaska, corporate donations by the cruise industry amount to over $2 million annually, with payroll and direct spending totaling $277 million. They are a major contributor to the Southeast visitor industry that provides over 10,000 jobs and $1 billion in visitor spending.

Does this mean that the cruise industry should get a “free pass” and not be required to comply with environmental regulations? Of course not, but a fair portrayal of the facts suggests they shouldn’t be viewed as the enemy either.

DEC understands this and has maintained a delicate balance working toward attaining compliance while not penalizing companies arbitrarily and unnecessarily in a time of newly emerging regulations and technology. Hopefully, this same attitude will prevail in negotiating penalties at a time when cruise companies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new pollution controls to make Alaska skies cleaner.

Much like the waste water controversy, some will attempt to use this issue to further demonize the industry. But implying that cruise companies are politically influencing dedicated professional regulators is not only counter-productive to achieving everyone’s ultimate goal of cleaner air but it unfairly smears the reputation and mission of DEC. Little good will come from that as it will only discourage cooperative efforts to bolster environmental compliance in the future.

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