JUNEAU, ALASKA — What's the third-largest community in Alaska? On a typical summer day, the 45,000 or so passengers riding cruise ships through state waters represent a population exceeded only by Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Unlike cities on land, however, the flotilla of cruise ships sailing past Alaska's shimmering glaciers, rain-drenched forests, and coastal mountains have escaped most rules controlling sewage and other wastewater. That means that waste from toilets, sinks, showers, kitchens, laundries, and beauty salons have been poured directly into the water.
Mounting concern about the effects of the booming cruise business - plus a couple high-profile criminal cases involving the dumping of oily debris and chemicals from cruise ships - created momentum for legislation that makes Alaska the first state to regulate water pollution from cruise ships.
The new law, which took effect July 1 and allows state inspectors to fine shipowners who violate state pollution laws, highlights many Alaskans' ambivalence toward the cruise industry. While they welcome the millions of dollars poured into the state by tourists eager to see moose and killer whales, a growing number of residents are concerned that the sheer numbers are starting to sully the very beauty that brings visitors to the north in the first place.
A voluntary wastewater-sampling program last year showed why pollution laws are needed, says Gov. Tony Knowles, who called state lawmakers into a special session last month that passed the measure regarding water pollution, as well as air pollution and trash disposal. Seventy-nine of 80 samples failed to meet federal standards, and some had pollutants 50,000 times the permitted federal level for on-land operations.
"To be allowing fundamentally unregulated discharges of sewage into our waters is just unacceptable," Governor Knowles said in an interview.
While other cruise destinations are considering similar controls, it makes sense for Alaska to take the lead in cruise-pollution regulation, officials say.
In other cruise destinations, the ships head out to open ocean quickly after leaving port, rather then spend entire voyages in the inland waters of one state or territory.
"Here, it's different. We have special waters and special conditions, and it takes a little more effort," says Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Spencer Wood.
Cruise traffic to Alaska has grown dramatically, at a rate of about 10 percent a year over the past decade. Some 680,000 passengers are expected to tour Alaska's famed Inside Passage this summer.
Outnumbered by the visitors
Some Alaska ports are home to fewer people than the passengers who drop in daily. Even Juneau, which has 30,000 residents, feels the pressure. When several vessels are in port simultaneously, they dwarf the capital city's buildings, and sidewalks along the Gold Rush-era streets become so congested they are difficult to navigate.
Knowles says the industry must try to minimize its negative impacts. "The industry has to be willing to shoulder some responsibilities if they want to continue to enjoy support from the public," he says.
The cruise lines say they have done just that. The North West CruiseShip Association, a trade group of the nine large cruise lines sailing Alaska waters, endorsed the new state legislation. And cruise lines have promoted their efforts to improve shipboard environmental technology.
But the companies say they are alarmed about what is next on the Alaska horizon - a campaign to tax the ships, many of which fly foreign flags.
Because of international agreements, maritime law and what industry members say are constitutional protections for interstate commerce, the foreign-flagged vessels have escaped federal and state income taxes.
But in 1999, Juneau voters passed a $5-per-passenger fee. Other cities have adopted or considered similar measures.
Some Alaskans want to widen that effort. A citizen group is promoting a statewide ballot initiative that would include such a fee, plus an income tax and a tax on the ships' casino operations.
There is no legal justification for an income-tax exemption, says Joe Geldhof, a Juneau attorney promoting the initiative. And an industry that earns billions of dollars from Alaska's beauty can well afford to give something back, he says. "Whether there's a $25-a-head tax or a $50-a-head tax or whatever, it's not going to make the industry go away," he says.
The cruise companies, which claim to pump $719 million a year into Alaska's economy, say a special tax that could amount to $100 a couple would deter visitors. "With the national economy slowing, Alaska can ill afford to send the wrong message," John Hansen, executive director of the North West CruiseShip Association, said in a guest editorial in the Anchorage Daily News.
Plenty of Alaskans are grateful for cruise visits here.
Among them is Betsy Fischer, owner of Foggy Mountain Sports, a downtown Juneau store increasingly dependent on the tourist trade. She says she sees no ill effects when she kayaks local waters, rides her bicycle on trails, or relaxes at her home near the airport.
"When we go out fishing, the water is absolutely clear," she says. "We still have beautiful, peaceful summers here."
Others have mixed views of the cruise-ship crowds.
Cory Mann, a Juneau native who chauffeurs tourists riding a shuttle bus called the Little Green Trolley, says he loves meeting the visitors. But, he says as he waits at the dock one afternoon to pick up passengers from Holland America's Westerdam, he believes the cruise lines need tighter regulation.
Such ambivalence about cruise ships is common in tourist-dependent Juneau, Mr. Mann says. "It's a love-hate relationship."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor