When the season's first cruise ship docked this spring, it was met by more than the usual welcoming celebration. Protestors greeted the 2,020-passenger Norwegian Sky with demands for stronger environmental controls on the booming cruise business and a goal of making Alaska the first state to regulate the often foreign-flagged vessels.
As it sailed south to Ketchikan two days later, the Coast Guard charges, the Norwegian Cruise Line ship trailed a wake at least half a mile (1 km) long of waste with fecal coliform levels 3,500 times the federal standard for treated sewage. That, say critics of the Alaska cruise business, explains why the huge ships are wearing out their welcome here.
"Every time we look we find more problems that are significant problems," said Gershon Cohen, an environmental activist from Haines, 80 miles (130 km) north of Juneau.
Many residents say they are fed up with vessels like "floating cities" with thousands of people flushing toilets, draining sinks and rinsing soap suds and chemicals into Alaska's waters. They are also upset about hazy clouds belching from the ships' smokestacks, crowds of cruise passengers flooding their towns and what they describe as incessant noise from aircraft ferrying cruise passengers on sightseeing trips to glaciers, mountaintops and other local attractions.
And they are irritated at what they consider the industry's high-handed approach to local concerns.
"This is big business. It's like dealing with an oil company. They're used to having their own way. They're used to pushing people around," said Kim Metcalfe, a state worker who began her crusade for curbs on the industry a decade ago, when cruise passengers were being bused through her neighborhood of Victorian-style clapboard homes.
Now lawmakers have passed a bill making Alaska the first state with the authority to inspect ships, prosecute violators and regulate air pollution, trash disposal and hazardous waste handling as well as sewage. That followed action by the U.S. Congress in December that banned the dumping of untreated sewage anywhere in Alaska's Inside Passage and put some controls on discharges of treated sewage.
Gov. Tony Knowles, one of the leaders in the crackdown on the industry, discounted the risk of losing the cruise lines' business. "I'm not worried about that," the Democratic governor said. "If we don't protect our waters, we won't have the environment that people want to see."
With other U.S. cruise destinations, ships pass several states or territories or sail in open ocean, but Alaska cruise ships spend nearly all their time in state waters, mostly along the Inside Passage in the southeastern panhandle.
The sheltered channel starts in northern British Columbia and runs to the Gold Rush town of Skagway, a major tourist destination. It is full of islands, surrounded by mountains, bordered by thick rain forests and glaciers and dotted with small towns, most of them lacking outside road access. The biggest city is Juneau, the state capital, with 30,000 people.
Into this area this summer will stream more than 680,000 cruise passengers and thousands of crew members -- more than the state's population and a dramatic increase since 1990, when about 250,000 passengers passed through.
Concerns about pollution rose after Holland America in 1998 and Royal Caribbean in 1999 pled guilty to criminal charges of dumping oily wastes and other hazardous material.
There was little regulation then of a more plentiful source of pollution, sewage, but there was enough concern that in 1999 the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Coast Guard set up a "cruise ship initiative" to look into it.
A pilot monitoring program produced results that were "disgraceful and shocking," in Knowles' words. Seventy-nine of 80 samples of ships' effluent had levels of fecal coliform or total suspended solids that would be illegal on land -- up to 50,000 times the federal standard.
Regulation of sewage began this year with a bill passed by Congress and sponsored by Alaska Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski that applies to ships with 500 or more passengers.
It bans the dumping of raw sewage in parts of the Inside Passage within three miles of the shore, areas previously treated as outside federal waters where such disposal was common. It also sets standards for treated sewage, banning discharges while ships are within a mile of shore.
The new state law gives the Department of Environmental Conservation authority to do its own enforcement, sets stricter and wider-ranging wastewater standards and covers ships capable of carrying 50 or more overnight passengers. It imposes limits on "graywater," the runoff from sinks, showers and laundries, and regulates air emissions and trash disposal.
The law also imposes a $1-per-passenger fee on the cruise companies to fund the state program. After initial resistance, the industry endorsed it as a "fair agreement that establishes rigorous standards and procedures yet gives us the certainty we need to operate in Alaska waters
," according to a statement from the Vancouver-based North West CruiseShip Association
Cruise companies are also touting their environmental improvements. Last year the association's members spent $1.3 million on four pairs of oil-spill-response tugs stationed around southeast Alaska, and this year they have hosted open houses on some ships to show off new technology that they hope will make wastewater even cleaner than required under law.
"If you look at what we're doing on the vessels with wastewater, we're way ahead of a lot of Alaska communities," said Tom Dow, vice president for public affairs at Princess Cruises and Tours.
But some coastal residents complain about more than pollution. Metcalfe helped organize the "Peace and Quiet Coalition," a Juneau group trying to limit sightseeing flights that cater to cruise passengers. "There's just constant noise from morning until night," she said.
Others are seeking a way to tax the industry. They point out that cruise companies' foreign-flagged vessels escape state and federal income taxes, and they argue that the vertically integrated corporate structures insulate the cruise lines from hiring many Alaskans or buying Alaska products and services.
In late 1999, voters made Juneau the first intermediate cruise ship port to assess a head tax on passengers and last year the city began slapping a $5 fee on each passsenger over protests from the industry. Since then, other Alaska cities have adopted or considered targeted cruise taxes.
"That's paid for a lot of mitigation measures when 685,000 of your best friends show up in your backyard," said Joe Geldhof, a Juneau attorney and industry critic. He and others have organized a drive to place on the 2002 ballot an initiative to charge a $50 head tax on the cruise companies, along with an income tax and a tax on shipboard casinos.
The cruise lines argue that it is unfair to charge passengers a special tax for simply entering the state, and they say they already contribute plenty to the state through sales taxes, charity contributions and other payments. - (Reuters)