Cruise ship emissions have short-term effect on downtown Juneau air quality, Alaska DEC says

Crowds of people at the dock next to a Holland American ship
Tour operators hold signs while cruise passengers disembark from the Eurodam. Crowded dock scenes likely aren’t in store for 2021 as cruise lines institute anti-pandemic protocols. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

A state environmental official shared takeaways Thursday from a draft air quality study of cruise ship emissions. The state tried to measure their impact in downtown Juneau from data collected in 2019. 

The quick version is that downtown Juneau generally has good air quality, and cruise ship emissions didn’t threaten the city’s good standing with the Environmental Protection Agency. 

“But we definitely could see short-term impacts as a result of cruise ship emissions,” said Kayl Overcast, a chemist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Overcast talked with members of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability in a video conference Thursday. He said those air quality impacts usually only lasted an hour or two, whereas the EPA’s clean air standards are based on averages over 24 hours.

A lot of sleuthing went into that conclusion. 

“Assessing cruise ship impacts … turned out to be quite difficult,” Overcast said. “And we were really, really fortunate to have stumbled upon webcams that were provided by the SnowCloud. Without that footage, we would have had a very difficult time determining where any of these spikes — what the sources were.”

That is, spikes in unhealthy particulate matter sensors around downtown Juneau collected in summer 2019. Connections to smoke from wildfires in Canada and Interior Alaska that summer were easy to figure out. But the webcams helped Overcast and his colleagues spot super-localized sources, such as bonfires, shifts in wind direction, debris burns in Douglas, backyard fish smoking and even food carts in Marine Park. 

“Our City Hall site was located just north of very delicious Filipino barbecue vendors. … And I’m sure those in City Hall could smell it on days when the winds were blowing the right direction,” Overcast said. “And we saw that. We saw, consistently, days where our sensor at City Hall would be much higher than anywhere else.”

The variability from hour to hour and location to location made making generalizations hard. They had to examine data day by day. 

The only times air quality got bad in downtown Juneau was when wildfire smoke blanketed the region that summer. 

DEC planned to keep collecting air quality data last summer, without cruise ships, to get a baseline. They switched to fewer, but more robust sensors. But Overcast said they were solar-powered, which caused problems — they didn’t start to get good data until August.

He said the department plans to make the 2020 data and their analysis available this summer. They’ll continue collecting data this summer, too.  

The study was a response to a glut of citizens’ complaints about cruise ship emissions in 2017 and 2018. The cruise lines also changed some of their practices in response.

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Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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