Frequently Asked Questions - Cruise Ship Wastewater Discharge Regulation and HB 80

Alaska cruise ship law requires large cruise ships that discharge wastewater into state waters to first treat the wastewater using state of the art wastewater treatment technology.  Alaska uses state of the art regulatory and permitting mechanisms to protect water quality and aquatic life.

Background ^ To Top

Q: How many cruise ships operate in Alaska?
A: In 2012, 28 large commercial passenger vessels (cruise ships) operated in Alaska. Large cruise ships are defined as having 250 or more lower berths.  15 small commercial passenger vessels (including 5 state ferries) were registered to operate in Alaska in 2012. Small cruise ships are defined as having between 50 and 249 lower berths.

Q: How many cruise ships are allowed to discharge wastewater in Alaska waters?
A: Of the 28 large cruise ships operating in 2012, only 17 of them were permitted to discharge wastewater in Alaskan waters and of those 17, only 7 were permitted to discharge while stationary (under more stringent discharge limitations). Of the 15 small commercial passenger vessels operating in Alaska in 2012, 13 were allowed to discharge in Alaskan waters under strict regulatory requirements.

Quality of cruise ship discharges (effluent) ^ To Top

Q:  Do cruise ships treat their wastewater to a lesser extent than other marine dischargers?
A:  No. Large cruise ships operating in Alaska use advanced wastewater treatment systems, systems that treat wastewater to a higher quality than the systems used by coastal communities in Alaska.

Q:  Do cruise ships discharge “untreated” or “partially treated” sewage into Alaska marine waters?
A:  No. Large cruise ships are only permitted to discharge highly treated effluent – a clear liquid with no visible solids.

Q:  Do large cruise ships discharge larger volumes of effluent than municipal dischargers?
A:  No. The total effluent discharged in Alaska waters by permitted large cruise ships over the entire range of their travel during the cruise ship season is estimated to be less than half of the discharge from the City of Juneau during that same time period.

Q:  Does HB 80 allow cruise ships to start discharging lower quality effluent?
A:  No. Passage of the legislation will not result in a lessening of cruise ship effluent quality. Large passenger vessels will still have to use advanced wastewater treatment systems.

Q:  Does HB 80 set a lower standard for cruise ships as compared to other marine dischargers in Alaska?
A:  No. HB 80 allows the department to extend the 2010 Cruise Ship Wastewater General Permit, which requires ships to meet stringent effluent limits for discharged wastewater. It also authorizes cruise ships to apply for mixing zones for upcoming permits, an option other marine dischargers already have. Mixing zones ensure that water quality will remain protected at a very high level, while still meeting a protective and achievable standard. A ballot measure passed in 2006 required that water quality criteria be met “at the point of discharge” from large cruise ships, which was more stringent than for any other discharger to the marine environment in the state. In other words, the quality of the treated effluent had to meet these high standards in the pipe, within the ship, before it is discharged into the ocean  – but only for discharges from cruise ships, and not from any other dischargers. Cruise ships have been able to meet this stringent requirement for all but four parameters (ammonia and dissolved copper, nickel, and zinc). For all other dischargers in the state, a rigorous permitting process determines what levels must be met at the point of discharge. HB 80 removes the ballot measure requirement that applied to cruise ships and not other marine discharges.

Protection of salmon and other aquatic life ^ To Top

Q:  Is DEC adequately considering the effects of copper from large cruise ship wastewater discharges on salmon and other marine species?
A:  Yes. There is no evidence that salmon or other aquatic life are not protected by current permit limits.  Alaska’s water quality criteria are based upon EPA’s national criteria which are established to avoid short-term and long-term effects, and to avoid bioaccumulation. As EPA adjusts criteria in response to a body of scientific work, Alaska in turn adjusts its criteria. EPA does not have current plans to adjust the saltwater copper criterion.

Q:  What about studies showing sublethal effects of copper on salmon?
A:  Recent studies demonstrating effects of low concentrations of copper on salmon olfactory response were conducted in fresh water. In one study, the authors themselves wrote that the conclusions of the study should not be extended to saltwater – which is where cruise ships discharge. DEC will continue to evaluate the evolving science on copper and when/if it is scientifically defensible, will change the water quality criteria for fresh and/or marine waters as appropriate.

Q:  Does HB 80 make Alaska’s water quality criteria less stringent?
A:  No.  The new legislation does nothing to change Alaska’s water quality criteria for copper or any other parameter. Those criteria are only changed through regulation changes after an extensive public process and with EPA’s approval.

Q:  Are current large cruise ship permit limits protective of marine life?
A:  Yes. Once the effluent is discharged, the dilution that occurs in the marine environment rapidly reduces the concentration of pollutants to levels that are better than water quality criteria.  Alaska’s water quality criteria were developed to protect marine life, and concentrations at or below water quality criteria are protective.
Q: Has the Department considered the potential for bioaccumulation of metals discharged from large cruise ships?
A: Yes. The water quality criteria that are the basis for all wastewater discharge permitting account for the potential for metals to bioaccumulate.

Mixing zones and water quality criteria ^ To Top

Q:  Does HB 80 give cruise ships special treatment by potentially allowing them to use mixing zones to meet Alaska water quality criteria? Will Cruise ships automatically get to use mixing zones?
A:  No. HB 80 does not guarantee that large cruise ships will be authorized to use mixing zones. Under the new legislation, only large cruise ships with Advanced Wastewater Treatment Systems are eligible to apply for authorization of a mixing zone. This assures that large cruise ships operating in Alaska will continue to have the best available wastewater treatment systems on-board. They must then satisfy the rigorous 19-part “test” in the mixing zone regulations that assure protection of marine life, both within and outside the authorized mixing zone. HB 80 does not automatically authorize  mixing zones for cruise ship discharges, rather, it allows them to apply just as  every other coastal community discharging in Alaska can. Mixing zones are are used throughout the country.

Q: What are some of the requirements that must be met in order to authorize a mixing zone:
A:  Among other requirements:
                 - no lethality to passing organisms
                - overall biological integrity of the waterbody will not be impaired
                - can’t preclude fish and shellfish harvesting
                - can’t result in a reduction in fish or shellfish population levels
                - can’t contact pollutants that bioaccumulate or persist above natural levels
                - can’t result in undesirable or nuisance aquatic species
                - mixing zone is as small as practicable.
Q:  Does DEC follow rigorous guidelines for authorizing mixing zones?
A:  Yes. Per EPA guidance, water quality criteria are used throughout the nation for “developing mixing zone standards and effluent limitations” – just as Alaska uses water quality criteria in its process for authorizing mixing zones and permitting other discharge types in the state. The permits that allow the discharge are written by Alaskan water quality professionals – chemists, hydrologists, engineers, and others – who have significant expertise working with the Clean Water Act and water quality criteria.

Q: Do mixing zones associated with large cruiseships discharging while under way have a greater impact on aquatic life than discharges that occur while a ship is moored at a dock?
A: No. When a large cruise ship is discharging treated wastewater while underway (6 knots or greater speed), the dilution factor is 50,000 to one. The effluent is diluted to meet all water quality standards very rapidly after discharge.  There are no long, trailing mixing zones where behind the ships where water quality standards are exceeded. Large cruise ships permitted to discharge while moored at the dock must meet more stringent effluent limits. Mixing zones for these vessels extend approximately 15 meters from the discharge port.

Science Advisory Panel’s findings ^ To Top

Q:  What did the 2009 Cruise Ship Wastewater Science Advisory Panel have to say about the effects of cruise ship discharges on the environment?
A:  The Panel of national and international experts (convened at the request of the Alaska Legislature) concluded in its November 2012 report to the Commissioner of DEC that there is “little additional environmental benefit to be gained by lowering the current permitted effluent limits to water quality criteria at the point of discharge.”

Q:  Did the 2009 Science Panel feel cruise ships are held to the same standards as other marine dischargers?
A:  No. The Panel, when considering the law prior to the passage of HB 80, stated in its November 2012 report:
Statements that the requirement imposed by the citizen’s initiative was an application of the state’s standards in a manner comparable to other Alaskan facilities are not accurate. Alaskan municipal and industrial dischargers to marine waters, as well as Alaskan fish processors, are all allowed mixing zones and then, after consideration of this dilution, must meet Alaska’s Water Quality Standards [criteria] at the mixing zone boundary.

Monitoring ^ To Top

Q: Does HB 80 eliminate or reduce sampling and monitoring requirements for cruise ship wastewater?
A: No. Large cruise ships that are permitted to discharge in Alaska waters must still sample for the same pollutants, at the same frequency as they did under the old law, with some monitoring required daily and sample collection with laboratory analyses conducted twice per month. Sampling is typically conducted by an independent third party. Ocean Rangers (contracted by DEC) will continue to monitor sampling events, both while large cruise ships are underway and while moored at the dock, when onboard large cruise ships. DEC staff will also continue to monitor selected sampling events.