Six Cruise Ships Release Treated Sewage into Harbors

The cruise ship Norwegian Pearl sails south through Chatham Strait on its final voyage of 2013. The ship is one of six permitted to release treated blackwater into Alaska harbors this summer. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
The cruise ship Norwegian Pearl sails south through Chatham Strait on its final voyage of 2013. The ship is one of six permitted to release treated blackwater into Alaska harbors this summer. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

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Did you know some cruise ships are allowed to discharge wastewater while anchored or tied up in port? State officials and industry representatives say it’s safe. But critics fear it’s fouling local harbors.

The Norwegian Pearl pulls up at one of Ketchikan’s cruise ship berths. Many of its nearly 2,400 passengers head out onto the docks.

Toby Hatcher of Portland, Oregon, is one. He says the ship encourages environmental awareness through recycling, low-flush toilets and other means.

“You have to request for your sheets to be changed or reuse your towel, so I hang up my towels and my washcloth. So you just save one for the whole week,” he says.

A regular Alaska cruiser, he’s aware of other efforts to control pollution. But he says he hasn’t thought much about how this and other ships discharge what comes out of the floating city’s toilets, sinks and laundries.

“I guess I’d prefer them not to do it in general at all. However, if they are going to do it, I’d prefer them not to do it right here, where they’re dock,” he says.

But, in fact, they do.

The Pearl is one of a dozen large cruise ships allowed to discharge treated wastewater in Ketchikan, Juneau and some other Alaska harbors this year.

Six, including the Pearl, have permits covering treated sewage, called blackwater. Those ships, plus six others, also have permits to discharge kitchen, laundry and shower runoff, also known as graywater.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation issues the permits for “stationary discharges” under new rules that took effect late last summer.

“It has to be treated wastewater through an advanced wastewater treatment system,” says DEC Environmental Program Specialist Ed White.

He says that technology makes it possible to discharge while stationary. Some ships were even allowed to do it under an older, more restrictive permit system. That measured pollutants coming directly out of the ships.

White says the new system allows samples to be taken after being diluted in what’s called a mixing zone. That was proposed by former Gov. Sean Parnell and approved by the legislature in 2013, at the urging of the industry.

“We have some additional requirements for those ships that discharge while stationary. They have to take water samples both on board the ship and also in the water (to measure) what happens in that mixing zone,” he says.

The zone for most harbors is 90 yards from the point of discharge. That’s about a third the length of the Norwegian Pearl.

White says the ships may be stationary, but tides and currents mean the water is not.

“We do have some restrictions. For example, in Skagway, there’s a dock where there would be an overlap. So they either can’t discharge there or they’d get a much smaller mixing zone if they can meet those requirements,” he says.

The dozen ships were issued individual permits while a new general permit system is on appeal.

“We feel that this new general permit does do the citizens of Alaska and the clean water of Alaska a big disservice,” says Daven Hafey of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the region’s largest environmental group.

He says new wastewater treatment systems are an improvement. But they’re not good enough to fully protect fish, shellfish 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 says.

The cruise industry disagrees.

“The water really is virtually drinking water quality when it’s discharged now from the vessels,” says John Binkley, president of the Cruise Lines International Association’s Alaska chapter.

He says releasing treated wastewater in harbors poses no threat.

“It’s a pretty advanced system. The final process in there is sterilization of the water, similar to what they use in hospitals and whatnot. And so it’s really pretty pure water that comes out,” he says.

In addition to the 12 ships granted stationary discharge permits, another six are allowed to discharge while underway, which dilutes the waste further.

In all, 18 ships have the OK to release wastewater this summer. White, of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, says another 14 don’t.

“Typically about half the ships in the last few years hold their wastewater and then treat it in whatever way they have and discharge it offshore,” he says.

Beyond Alaska’s regulatory reach.

White says copper and ammonia are among the pollutants measured.

“There’s always going to be impacts of any human activity, so the goal is to minimize those impacts and to restrict any impacts that could cause significant harm,” he says.

Stronger wastewater treatment standards were part of an initiative passed by Alaska voters in 2006. The current permitting system basically replaces those standards.

SEACC appealed the general permit, though the state rejected all but one of its points. Officials say they don’t know when that will be heard. Meanwhile, individual permits allow the same thing.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.