Dunleavy seeks to scuttle Ocean Rangers cruise ship monitors

The deck of Windstar Cruises’ Star Legend in 2018. (Photo by Liam Niemeyer/KRBD)

Voters in Alaska approved a 2006 ballot measure that put independent environmental watchdogs on cruise ships. But Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is looking to scrap the program.

The Ocean Rangers program is modeled on a federal program that monitors the fishing fleet. They’re Coast Guard-certified marine engineers. They ride on board cruise ships and look for signs of pollution in Alaska waters. It’s the only program of its kind in the nation.

But it’s viewed by some as red tape.

“Gov. Dunleavy has a sincere interest in reducing the regulatory footprint of state agencies,” said Jeff Rogers, the top budget official in the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, “and making it easier to do business throughout the state including Southeast Alaska.”

He said the governor’s proposal wouldn’t change air and water pollution standards.

“We now believe that we have the tools in the toolbox to maintain compliance from large cruise ships,” Rogers said. “So I think the time has just come for the Ocean Ranger program to go away.”

But the $3.8 million initiative is different from most other programs. It’s funded by cruise ship passengers in Alaska, not taxpayers.

The ballot measure that created the Ocean Rangers was in part a response to well-publicized violations by cruise ships that resulted in millions of dollars in fines for pollution.

“There was a fleet wide conspiracy to bypass oil, bilge water treatment systems and to dump other pollutants into waters here in Alaska and other jurisdictions around the country,” said Gershon Cohen, a Haines-based cruise critic who co-authored the successful ballot measure.

Ocean Rangers have been monitoring cruise ships in Alaska since 2007.

Last season, the monitors were aboard two-thirds of the cruise ships in Alaska waters. They logged 189 alleged violations.

They’re seasonal workers contracted through Florida-based Crowley Maritime Corporation. About a quarter of Ocean Rangers are Alaska residents.

“We value our association and partnership with (DEC) and are proud of the work we have done since the inception of the Ocean Rangers program,” Crowley spokesman Mark Miller said in a statement. “Helping to protect Alaska’s environment is a responsibility we take very seriously.”

So far, the cruise industry has been quiet over the fate of Ocean Rangers.

“All we have seen is the budget proposal to eliminate funding for the program, which was not at our request,” Cruise Lines International Association Alaska’s John Binkley wrote in a statement. “We have not seen any additional details. “

Rogers echoed that the cruise industry didn’t ask for this.

“You know in our conversations with them,” Rogers said of cruise industry representatives, “they have been neutral and I can say with complete certainty that this was not brought forward by CLIA or by any other industrial player.”

Skeptics say that reasoning doesn’t add up.

“There’s no advantage to Alaska to do this and it’s not costing Alaska to run the program,” Cohen said. “So one has to wonder where the motive is coming from to even look into doing this in the first place but hopefully the legislature won’t let it go through.”

A bill to eliminate the Oceans Rangers program hasn’t been filed.

But $115,000 to expand the state’s cruise ship air quality monitoring in Juneau did survive the governor’s austere budget proposal.