Bill would cut ferry costs, reinstate discharge rules

Extra ferry life rings lean against other spare parts at the Ketchikan Marine Engineering Facility at Ward Cove in 2014. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News – Juneau)

A Southeast lawmaker introduced a bill this week to help Alaska Marine Highway ferries meet state pollution-control rules. It would also exempt new ships from a law requiring a percent of construction spending go toward art.

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Senate Bill 3 is one of about 50 pieces of legislation prefiled by Alaska lawmakers on Jan. 9.

Technically, most ferries and small cruise ships operating in Alaska are out of compliance with state water-discharge rules.

That’s because regulations exempting them from more stringent rules designed for much larger cruise ships ran out a little more than a year ago.

Michelle Hale, department of Environmental Conservation Division of Water, said it took the agency a while to figure that out. So it’s not fining ferries or other small ships. Instead, she said the division is seeking a legislative solution through a bill introduced before the session starts.

“It will reinstate that language that will then provide for ferries and small cruise ships to use a different method of treatment than is required of the large cruise ships,” Hale said.

Hale said that method, which has been in place for several years, requires far less equipment and staffing.

“So the Best Management Practices Plan requires them to collect samples and run their treatment systems at an optimal level.” Hale said. “But they’re not required to meet the more stringent limits of the large cruise ships.”

Hale said the requirements apply to ships carrying 50 to 249 passengers. That’s counted by the number of beds, not including upper bunks, cots or fold-outs. So, while some ferries carry more people, the bed counts are within the limits.

Officials said without the pollution-control exemption, costs will increase.

“We’re having trouble with the marine highway as it is, with capital expenditures,” state Sen. Bert Stedman said. Stedman, R-Sitka, introduced Senate Bill 3, which would reinstate the small-ship exemption.

“I would imagine it’s going to be lightning-bolt subject matter when we get it in the system,” Stedman said. “I’d like to keep it focused down on trying to keep our smaller fleet going, particularly the marine highway.”

Another provision of Stedman’s bill would exempt three new ferries from the state’s Percent-for-Art Program. That uses part of construction costs to purchase paintings, sculpture and other creative works for display on marine highway vessels.

Ferry spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said that provision would reduce the cost of two new Southeast shuttle ships and a replacement for the Tustumena.

“The department does support SB 3, which would allow the department to use existing artwork that has been taken off the Taku, which is in permanent layup status,” Woodrow said. “We have also removed art from the Chenega which is in long-term layup status.”

That concerns state Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, whose district includes three other ferry port cities.

“The arts community is a very active and economic contributor to our Southeast community,” Kito said. “I would like to see Southeast artists to be able to provide art for our public facilities, including the marine highway system.”

Stedman said the idea came from discussions with state officials. He said the bill is a rough draft. Like all legislation, it will undergo changes if it gains traction and advances through the Legislature.

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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.