One of the first bills to pass the Alaska senate this winter has to do with waste water and artwork on some of Alaska’s ferries. Senate bill 3 would reinstate an exemption for smaller passenger vessels including some state ferries and smaller cruise ships from state waste water treatment requirements.

Sitka Republican senator Bert Stedman sponsored the bill and testified in front of the Senate resources committee in February. “If we were to require the marine highway to come into compliance without this exemption what we’re doing is facing a cost issue on ships that were frankly phasing out, the older ones, and then the newer ones, is frankly a cost and design issue,” Stedman said.

Larger cruise ships are required to have an advanced waste water system that treats effluent to a higher standard before discharge into the ocean. Some state ferries and smaller cruise ships that hold between 50 and 249 passengers have been exempt from that requirement. The boats still do some treatment of waste water and are monitored by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The exemption was in place from 2004 until January of 2016. However, DEC officials said the ships have been continuing to operate the same way for the past year.
Stedman cited the state’s fiscal crisis as a reason for not requiring the treatment equipment on ferries. The discharge exemption does not apply to new Alaska Class ferries the state is having built, or to the fast ferries along with two smaller boats, LeConte and Aurora.

The exemption would apply to 10 small cruise ships expected to operate in Alaska. It also would apply to a replacement vessel the state plans for the ferry Tustumena and five other existing ships in the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Alaska Department of Transportation supports the bill. Ferry chief Michael Neussl testified that the system of discharge has been working.

“It is important to note I think for you as a governing body that this is a reinstatement of an existing regulation that has been in place for ten years and worked very well for ten years,” Neussl said. “As the senator stated, we haven’t gotten complaints we’re very cognizant of our discharges. We know where no discharge zones, we don’t discharge in port. Ships crews monitor that and they’re trained to monitor that and pay attention to those details.”

Legislators questioned state officials about the discharges that have been tracked from these ships and how those compared with other treated sewage discharges in Alaska waters.

Stedman’s bill also would exempt two Alaska class ferries and the Tustumena replacement vessel from a one percent for art requirement. Stedman also explained this as a cost saving measure and thought new ferries could display artwork from others being retired like the Taku. “There’s nice artwork in that ship and we could take artwork out of our old ships and put it in our new ones,” Stedman said. “Or we could get art out of copies out of the museums. So we could put art in the boat, in the new ships without going out and spending a lot of money. So it’s like a million bucks for the two ships and then the next one the Tustemena it could be a couple million dollars. So it’s a sizable chunk.”

The Alaska State Council on the Arts did not oppose that provision of the bill as a one-time targeted exemption because of the state’s fiscal crisis. The senate approved the bill Friday, February 17 by a 16-2 vote and it’s been sent on to the house and referred to finance and transportation committees.