The Alaska Legislature has restored funding for the Ocean Rangers, but the future of the independent cruise ship monitors — as well as the state’s entire cruise ship program — is uncertain.
The Ocean Rangers were approved by voters in 2006, and advocates say they’ve been instrumental in protecting Alaska from pollution.
But the Dunleavy administration has other plans and it appears the state’s regulatory structure to oversee cruise ships may be radically restructured.
Ed White, the head of the state’s Cruise Ship Program, recently gave notice that he’d be leaving the Department of Environmental Conservation on August 1.
White had been the chief official charged with monitoring cruise ship compliance with wastewater permits and air emission standards for the past five years.
He declined Wednesday to be interviewed about his departure.
In light of White’s leaving the agency, DEC Commissioner Jason Brune told CoastAlaska he’s considering restructuring the entire cruise ship program.
“I am sad to see Ed go, he’s been a great asset to our team,” Brune said.
But rather than replace the top cruise ship official, Brune says the agency may divide its cruise ship program staff between the agency’s air and water divisions.
“But that’s just one scenario,” Brune added.
As head of the program, White had also overseen the Ocean Rangers, licensed marine engineers that independently monitor compliance of state and federal environmental laws.
Earlier this year, White contradicted the Dunleavy administration by telling CoastAlaska that the Ocean Rangers were “a critical part in our permitting process.”
Commissioner Brune still urged the Legislature to repeal the Ocean Rangers program arguing it was unnecessary and burdensome on the industry.
A repeal bill died in committee. But Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto blocked the program’s funding.
Lawmakers have since re-authorized the $3.4 million in passenger fee funding. But a fresh veto could come any time in the next month.
Still, Brune says his agency won’t be renewing the Ocean Rangers contract for the next season.
“We’re committed to working with the Legislature to create a new and improved program that works for everyone,” Brune said. “But we will not be renewing and going out for a bid for that contract.”
The “new and improved program” envisioned by Brune’s DEC would be automated monitoring that doesn’t rely upon on board inspectors.
How any new legislation and program could be accomplished in time for the 2020 cruise season isn’t clear. The law mandating Ocean Rangers that collects $4 per cruise ship passengers remains on the books.
Proponents of the program say it’s been largely successful.
“I think a big reason for the fact that the industry hasn’t been dumping in Alaska, the way they have been already caught dumping in other places, is because the Ranger program has been in place,” Gershon Cohen, one of the original authors of the ballot initiative that created the program.
“It’s like having a cop on the beat,” he added, “and it would be great if the administration would allow this program — that pays for itself — to be there to continue to protect Alaska’s waters and fisheries.”
The Ocean Rangers produce daily cruise ship reports that are also shared with the National Park Service. Glacier Bay National Park is a popular cruise ship destination and environmentally sensitive area.
“I’ve only heard positive things about the Ocean Rangers program,” Glacier Bay Park Superintendent Philip Hooge told CoastAlaska in a recent interview.
Hooge says he’s told cruise industry representatives that the Ocean Rangers program has been indispensable — and he’s uncomfortable seeing it go away.
“We might be forced into a situation of having to replicate elements of the Ocean Ranger program for Glacier Bay,” Hooge said.
A Holland America Lines cruise ship was cited last fall for discharging more than 22,000 gallons of untreated greywater in Glacier Bay. It was fined $250 by the National Park Service.
A notice of violation was also issued by Alaska’s attorney general. It is pending settlement with Carnival, the cruise line’s parent corporation.
Alaska’s cruise ship industry is booming. At least 1.3 million passengers are projected by the end of 2019. Even more cruise visitors are expected in 2020.