The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) announced in a new public notice on January 21st that is planning to use hired help and a system of spot checks on cruise ships in state waters.
The new program is not meant to replace the state’s Ocean Ranger program but to continue to oversee the cruise ships environmental operations in a more efficient way.
The Ocean Ranger program
Approved as part of a 2006 ballot initiative, the Ocean Ranger program requires the presence of a “state-employed marine engineer (ocean ranger) licensed by the Coast Guard to observe health, safety and wastewater treatment and discharge operations” on large cruise ships. The ballot initiative implemented a $4 per passenger fee to support program costs.
During the 2019 legislative session, at the request of the governor’s administration, Senate Bill 70 and House Bill 74 were introduced to repeal the program. The proposal turned out to be quite unpopular among local communities and individuals who protested saying rangers’ absence has left the state more vulnerable. Even so, the governor effectively shut down the program when he vetoed funding for it from the state’s operating budget.
The new program for 2021 is expected to cost $400,000 per year, almost one-tenth the cost of the Ocean Ranger program. It was estimated that, in the past, at least $1 million of the old program’s $3.5 million budget was spent on accommodations aboard cruise ships for the program’s 22 ocean rangers.
Randy Bates, manager of the DEC’s water quality division, said the state hasn’t stopped watching for cruise ship pollution, and the new program will continue DEC’s mission.
“I’m interested to see, excited to see how it comes out,” he said. “This is how we’re going to manage cruise ships this coming summer.”
Under the new program, DEC employees and hired contractors with marine engineering expertise will inspect cruise ships as they arrive in the state. Throughout the cruise season, state workers will perform spot inspections of ships, comparing the initial records to what they see.
Bates said the plan will be flexible, because the state doesn’t know how many ships will come to Alaska during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ocean Rangers are still required by state law, even if no money exists to fund them. Though the Dunleavy administration has repeatedly attempted to repeal the law requiring them, the Alaska Legislature has not approved the administration’s proposals.
“I don’t want to repeal a law until we have a substitute monitoring program.” said Rep. Sara Hannan, one of the Alaska Legislature’s most ardent defenders of the old program.
It was also suggested that some kind of electronic monitoring program could eventually replace the Ocean Rangers, but that kind of system isn’t yet available and human interaction is still preferred over electronic monitors.