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Official touts state water standards


Daily News Staff Writer

Earlier this year, Alaska’s Legislature overturned the cruise ship wastewater discharge rules approved by voters in the 2006 Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative.

However, water quality questions raised during the Legislature’s cruise wastewater debate continue to linger in the public domain, questions that have prompted Michelle Bonnet Hale, director of Alaska’s Division of Water, to address the topic in a series of presentations in Juneau, Sitka and now Ketchikan.

On Wednesday, Hale assured a Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience that the Legislature’s action does not imperil the state’s water quality, citing the strength of the state’s water quality criteria and oversight by state officials.

"At (the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation), our job and our mission it to conserve, improve and protect the environment," Hale said. "In my division, we do that for the water in the state of Alaska."

Hale, whose family background includes involvement in the mining and fishing industries in Alaska (Hale holds a commercial hand troll fishing permit and spent her teen-age years on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island) stressed that she and her staff have a personal interest in maintaining water quality because they live, fish and recreate in Alaska.

"So not only is it my job to protect the water in the state of Alaska, I have very strong personal reasons for doing so," Hale said. "I love my state. And I think I've got a great job because the job I have allows me to help my state as we move forward. Protect the water — but do it such a way that we can still live and work here."

Hale opened her presentation by answering four questions that surfaced as the Legislature was debating the concept of rolling back the Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative that required cruise ships to meet state water quality standards at the point where the wastewater is discharged from the ships, rather than outside of a mixing zone as required for all other industries and municipalities in the state.

Hale said salmon’s sense of smell isn’t being harmed by copper in cruise ship wastewater discharges — nor did the Legislature’s action actually "roll back" Alaska water quality standards.

She said the change still requires cruise ships to treat their wastewater to a high standard, and doesn’t allow the dumping of raw sewage in Alaska waters.

"And, you can fish just as close as you can get to a cruise ship (legally and safely)," Hale said.

She provided some historical background of the cruise ship wastewater issue, acknowledging that the industry’s less-than-stellar record of environmental violations in Alaska and around the world before 2000.

The marine sanitation devices required on cruise ships back then were proven not to be very effective, according to Hale.

"The systems just weren’t doing the job that they were supposed to do," Hale said.

As a result of testing, all of the large cruise ships that were discharging wastewater were required to have advanced wastewater treatment systems on board by 2004.

"That mostly solved the wastewater problem from the wastewater perspective," Hale said. "However, in 2003, a voters initiative was drafted that came from concern about those earlier issues with the wastewater."

The voter initiative drafted in 2003 went on the ballot and was approved by Alaska voters in 2006, according to hale

"From a wastewater perspective ..., it is a solution for a problem that had already been solved by the advanced wastewater treatment system," she said.

Hale said the state’s water quality criteria were developed through "extensive research" and a "very thorough process" designed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The water quality criteria are designed to "protect anything in the water," including fish, people and micro-organisms from toxic effects.

"Water criteria are designed to be used in the water body … because that’s where the fish are and that's where the organisms are," she said. "They’re not designed to be used at the ‘end-of-pipe’ or the point of discharge."

What the 2006 citizen’s initiative did was apply the water quality criteria at the point where the wastewater is discharged from the she cruise ships’ she said.

"No other industry in the state of Alaska has to meet water quality criteria at the point of discharge," Hale said. "Municipalities don’t. Industries don't."

Still, cruise ships come close to meeting the ballot initiative standards, according to Hale.

She said cruise ships met the requirement for all but four parameters: ammonia, and dissolved copper, nickel and zinc.

"They've done everything they can and they can’t quite meet the water-quality criteria at the end of pipe for those four parameters," Hale said.

Hale addressed the question of how much wastewater cruise ships have been discharging in Alaska waters by selecting one day at random in 2012, and looking at the vessels that called in Ketchikan.

A total of 28 large cruise ships sailed in Alaska during the 2012 season, she said. Of those 28 ships, 11 ships didn’t discharge any wastewater at all in Alaska. That means they either discharged in federal waters at least three miles offshore, or, "for those boats that are near Canada, they might have discharged in Canada once they crossed the border," Hale said.

Ten of the remaining 17 large cruise ships were permitted to discharge only while they were underway at a speed of at least 6 knots, she said. Seven ships were permitted to discharge wastewater continuously, meaning in part that they could discharge while docked in a community such as Ketchikan.

"Those (ships) that were permitted to discharge ... had much more stringent limits to meet than did those that could discharge (only) while underway," Hale said.

On July 1, 2012, four large cruise ships visited Ketchikan, said Hale.

Three of those ships weren’t permitted to discharge wastewater in Alaska. The fourth, while permitted to discharge in Alaska, didn’t discharge in Ketchikan.

Records show that the fourth ship waited until it was about three hours outside of Ketchikan and near or at the Canadian border when it began a 1.5-hour operation to discharge about 44,000 gallons of wastewater.

For perspective, Hale noted that 44,000 gallons is substantially less than a 660,000-gallon Olympic-size swimming pool and far less than the maximum average daily discharge of 1.9 million gallons from the Ketchikan wastewater treatment plant.

Hale said the wastewater that was discharged was "basically water."

"There’s very little in it — a little bit of metals; a little bit of ammonia," she said.

She said the cruise ships’ advanced water treatment systems treat wastewater to a higher level than does any community in Southeast Alaska.

For example, the dissolved copper in the wastewater released by the ship on July 1, 2012, was 10 micrograms per liter, while the limit for dissolved copper from the Ketchikan wastewater treatment plant is 290 micrograms per liter, according to Hale.

The effluent from that cruise ship would have met the water-quality criteria by the time it reached the stern of the vessel, she said.

"So fish swimming behind the ship would have been swimming in clean water," Hale said.

Regarding the potential for salmon’s all-important sense of smell to be impaired by copper from wastewater, Hale cited a 2003 study in which Washington state researchers found that dissolved copper might have an olfactory effect on juvenile fish in freshwater. The researchers indicated they didn’t know how the research might apply in saltwater.

A subsequent and more recent study (not yet peer-reviewed, however) found the olfactory effects on fish begin to show up in saltwater at around 100-micrograms of copper, according to Hale. The state’s "most stringent standard" is 3 micrograms, she said.

The Legislature’s action earlier this year removed the requirement that cruise ships meet the water criteria at the point of discharge, allowing the ships to meet the criteria at the border of a mixing zone determined by DEC.

"That aligns cruise ship discharge requirements with those of other industries and municipalities," Hale said.

DEC’s Division of Water is working to draft the next wastewater discharge permit for large cruise ships, according to Hale. The division hopes to have the draft permit ready for the public review and comment period this fall, and have the final permit in place in 2014.

"We’ll ensure that the water quality of the state is protected," Hale said.