Cruise ship air quality violations spike in Alaska

The Norwegian Pearl in Juneau on Tuesday, Sept. 4. (Photo by Tim Olson/KTOO)

This summer cruise ships have been falling afoul of Alaska’s air quality standards. The cruise industry says it can and will do better.

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“This summer it seems like there’s been a lot more pollution in the channel,” said Suzy Cohen, who has lived and worked in downtown Juneau since 1992. “Some mornings I’ve woken up and looked out and just seen this heavy, blue cloud hanging over the channel and it’s kind of worrisome. You don’t know what you’re breathing and it seems like it’s coming up into the neighborhoods.”

Cohen is among more than 134 people this year who’ve phoned the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s cruise ship hotline.

“This season we’ve received a lot more complaints,” Ed White, head of the DEC’s cruise ship air quality program, said.

Some of the calls, White said, were about relatively harmless steam coming from the ships’ stacks.

“But we were also receiving more complaints now about things like smell, about the smoke in addition to the steam,” White said.

The state’s air quality standard for cruise ships is measured by opacity. Basically that’s how see-through the plume coming out of a ship is.

Last year the state collected $75,000 in fines for two ships that violated this standard. This year it’s already sent nine violation notices for ships in Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Haines and Seward. One violation can carry a fine of around $46,000, though companies often settle with the state for less.

The cruise industry admits it has a problem.

“We’re disappointed that we are not able to get the visual plume to where we want it to be,” Cruise Lines International Association Alaska president John Binkley said during a Thursday speech addressing civic and business leaders at Southeast Conference in Ketchikan. “And we’re committed to continue to work on that, regardless of what it takes.”

There are multiple reasons for more plumes, one is just a matter of volume.

“A couple years ago maybe we’d have four ships. Now we have six ships in port and they’re bigger ships as well,” White said. “So there’s more input into the air.”

But state and industry officials also point to a more technical explanation. About three years ago, cruise lines installed systems called “scrubbers” that mix exhaust with water to filter out emissions. It was in anticipation of stricter federal sulfur standards.

“We’re in compliance in terms of the sulfur limits but we’re not happy with the (scrubber) systems,” Binkley said.

Ed White said his agency recognizes that its current method of measuring air quality has limitations.

“Unfortunately, the opacity standard is often more of an indicator where we can look at that there’s smoke present,” White said. “But knowing what is in that and the potential health risks, that would be something that takes more study and more data.”

That’s why state regulators are investigating ways to update its methods and possibly the standard itself.

In the meantime, coastal residents like Suzy Cohen in Juneau, said anyone who witnesses apparent cruise ship pollution should speak up.

“I think that citizens really need to call when they think that there’s a problem, call into the DEC,” Cohen said. “They have a hotline and make sure that you report it.”

Alaska continues to grow in popularity with cruise lines. During Binkley’s speech in Ketchikan, he said next year’s cruise season is projected to bring 1,361,400 cruise ship passengers — a new all-time record for the third year running.