Financing Alaska: What happens if the Ocean Rangers stop monitoring cruise ships?

Norwegian officials opened an investigation into why a cruise ship carrying more than 1,370 people set sail along the country's often wild western coast despite storm warnings, forcing a major evacuation by helicopter. / Photo: Christian Ferrer / CC BY-SA 4.0 / (MGN)

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The watchdog group that monitors the cruise ship industry didn't survive the governor's veto.

The Ocean Ranger program, which was created 11 years ago after a voter-approved ballot initiative, puts Coast Guard-trained observers aboard cruise ships to monitor their environmental operations and marine discharges.

It's paid for with a $4-per-person berth fee and raises about $4 million yearly.

But, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation says the program has only yielded six observations that have lead to notices of violations over the past 11 years, and that the state needs to be more responsible with everyone's money.

"The $4 per berth will still be collected, and we have committed to working with the legislature during the interim, trying to figure a way to more responsibly spend that money, to do better things for the environment, to more effectively monitor the cruise ship industry, much better than the current Ocean Ranger program has," Commissioner Jason Brune said.

Alaska is the only state with this kind of a program and it comes after environmental violations by cruise ships in U.S. and Alaska waters.

In 1999 Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., agreed to pay $18 million in criminal fines as part of a plea deal. The Department of Justice said pollutants like chemicals from photo processing equipment, dry cleaning shops and printing presses were dumped into U.S. harbors and coastal areas in several places, including the Inside Passage of Alaska.

Brune also says no other industry faces full-time scrutiny like the cruise industry.

"There are no oil and gas rangers, mining rangers, fishing rangers, timber rangers in the state," Brune said. "So I think having Ocean Rangers is unnecessary. I think that they should be regulated like all other industries are in the state."

Advocates for the program say the cruise ship industry has a history of polluting ocean waters and they disagree that the program hasn't been effective enough.

"It's not something costing the state money," Gershon Cohen with the group Alaska Clean Water Advocacy said. "And when you look at all of the impacts to Alaska's waters, and fisheries right now, with temperatures in the oceans rising and everything else, the idea that we wouldn't want to have someone there (on the cruise ships) who works for us, to watch what's going on and make sure that our waters are being protected is ludicrous."

Asked what will happen moving forward, Brune says environmental oversight will still continue-- it will just look different.

"I see early season inspections, I see using technology to show when valves are open or closed, I also see a way to improve the environment by using some of that money to help onshore wastewater treatment facilities," Brune said.

John Binkley, president for Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, did not return an email asking for comment.

Meanwhile, Cohen stands firm that he believes the program is effective and has proven itself to be.

"I think the industry has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can't be trusted to police themselves," Cohen said.

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