Governor proposes new program to replace onboard cruise ship monitors

The cruise ship Le Soléal departs Cordova. The ship first visited the town on Aug. 21. Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
The cruise ship Le Soléal departs Cordova. The ship first visited the town on Aug. 21. Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Almost three years after pulling pollution monitors — called Ocean Rangers — from large cruise ships, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed legislation to replace the onboard state personnel with regular inspections by shoreside staff while ships are in port and underway.

The Ocean Rangers program was written into state law when voters approved a citizen’s initiative in 2006 to step up oversight of the cruise ship industry.

However, start-of-season and random inspections during the summer “are a more effective use of available funds,” Emma Pokon, deputy commissioner at the Department of Environmental Conservation, told the Senate Resources Committee on Feb. 14.

Relying on shoreside personnel to inspect vessels while in port or underway avoids having to pay for living quarters for Ocean Rangers aboard multiple ships the entire summer, Randy Bates, the DEC Water Division director, told senators.

The 2006 initiative required “state-employed marine engineers (Ocean Rangers) licensed by the Coast Guard to observe health, safety and wastewater treatment and discharge operations.” Passenger fees collected by the cruise lines and turned over to the state paid the entire cost of the program.

Pokon called the 2006 vote “a pretty clear message from Alaskans to take water quality seriously.”

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Dunleavy, in his first year in office in 2019, dropped the $3.4 million Ocean Rangers program from the state budget. Subsequent legislative attempts to restore the funding have failed.

Although the governor had said he would propose an alternative program to specifically monitor cruise industry compliance with environmental laws, he did not offer legislation until earlier this month. The department has been using existing staff to check for compliance with environmental rules.

The Senate Resources Committee heard and held the bill, intending to “take it up another day,” said the chairman, Sen. Josh Revak, of Anchorage. The measure (Senate Bill 180) would also need to clear the Finance Committee before going to the full Senate for a vote. The same measure was assigned to three committees in the House, with the Legislature just past the one-third mark in its 121-day session.

Bates called the Ocean Rangers “writers and observers,” who provided oversight but lacked enforcement powers. “We feel at this point that the Ocean Rangers served a purpose.”

In lieu of onboard monitors, “DEC marine engineers and inspectors will perform initial and annual inspections on ships operating in Alaska as early in the season as possible, (and) will perform both scheduled and unscheduled inspections in port and while vessels are underway,” according to the department’s presentation at Senate Resources. “Small vessels will be subject to the same inspection requirements.”

The department plans to hire additional marine engineers to cover the workload, BatesJuneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl sees it differently. “The Ocean Rangers are a deterrent more than an enforcement mechanism,” he said a day after the committee hearing. He also was critical of the governor’s delay between pulling the monitors off the ships in 2019 and proposing an alternative in 2022. “He’s been three years not following the law.”

The governor’s bill proposes using some of the savings from ending the Ocean Rangers program to create a small grant program “to assist port municipalities to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities serving vessel passengers.”

Kiehl called the possible grant program “a sweetener” for communities, though he noted the funding of maybe a couple million dollars a year would fall far short of the tens of millions of dollars or more that it would cost to improve wastewater treatment plants.

Any grant funding would be subject to annual legislative appropriation in the state budget.