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JUNEAU, Alaska - With cruise ships plying the Inland Passage in unprecedented numbers, the State of Alaska is leading a movement to clean up what has become a global concern: the discharge of millions of gallons of wastewater from luxury vessels.
Calling the cruise ship discharges "a disgrace," Gov. Tony Knowles recently called a special session of the legislature to adopt what would become the world's first comprehensive monitoring, testing and control measures on the $11 billion-a-year industry.
The proposed regulations, which the industry has pledged to comply with even before they become law, could set a model for California, Washington, Florida and the Caribbean in their attempts to monitor the environmental effects of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who sail along their coasts each year.
"They come to Alaska to see incredible vistas, clean water, unparalleled marine habitat," Knowles said. "To promote that and at the same time be guilty of polluting, that is something I think their own customers will not accept."
Alaska's proposed regulations were overwhelmingly adopted by the state House but stalled by a committee chairman in the Senate.
"Anybody who's looking at the cruise ship industry is watching what Alaska's doing right now," said Kira Schmidt of the San Francisco-based Bluewater Network, which has worked to step up cruise-ship regulation across the country.
Alaska's proposed new standards, which go well beyond existing federal and international law, already are sparking a program of waste treatment upgrades. Cruise executives said the entire fleet serving Alaska should be upgraded to provide sharply reduced emissions by 2003.
"We're really at the leading edge in Alaska," said John Hansen of the Northwest Cruise Ship Association, an industry group. "There's a lot of concern in the public expressed about keeping Alaska clean and pristine, and we agree with that. We are on the same wavelength as the state in terms of making absolutely sure that the quality of the environment is kept high."
While Alaska is a relative newcomer to the cruise industry, it has seen cruise ship traffic swell exponentially over the last decade: By midsummer, 45,000 passengers each day are sailing its glacier-rimmed waters, the equivalent of the state's third-largest city. The new traffic jams are in some of the most scenic and pristine waters on Earth: the fjords, channels and passages of the Alexander Archipelago.
"Not to be gross, but all they do is eat all day. What do they do with the waste?" said Michele Brown, commissioner of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation.
The answers the state found - after it conducted the first large-scale testing of cruise ship wastewater last year - were alarming.
Only one of 80 samples met all federal standards. Most disconcerting, 70 percent of the discharge samples from galleys, showers and laundries - the so-called harmless gray water that is dumped untreated into coastal waters - showed high fecal bacteria levels, some as high as 50,000 times the standard for treated sewage.
Fecal coliform in elevated levels represents not only a human health threat but can build up in shellfish and poses a threat to a wide variety of aquatic life by starving oxygen out of the water. Heavy metals, found in some of the cruise ship discharges, can be toxic.
"Frankly, we shouldn't be trusting them any further than we can throw them," said activist Gershon Cohen, who fears cruise ship wastes could be taking a toll on marine wildlife.