By Larry Persily
Skagway’s legislators are waiting for the Gov. Mike Dunleavy administration to unveil its alternative to the Ocean Rangers onboard cruise ship pollution monitor program, which the governor vetoed out this year’s budget.
“There is interest in getting a cop back on the beat or a watchdog back on the vessels,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat whose district includes Skagway and Haines.
The senator said he has been talking with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which administered the program, and said it’s possible “to get something going again.”
But without an appropriation, “it’s broken and now we’re looking to rebuild it,” Kiehl said.
Though the governor stripped the program’s $3.4 million appropriation from the budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30, the Ocean Rangers law remains on the books.
“We have to have an Ocean Rangers program because that’s what the (state) statute says,” said Rep. Sara Hannan, a Juneau Democrat who also represents Skagway and Haines. Hannan said she intends to work to restore onboard monitors to the budget for the state fiscal year that starts July 1. The legislative session opens Jan. 21.
When he announced his Ocean Rangers’ veto last June, Dunleavy, who is not a fan of government regulation, said at a press conference: “We believe that there are ways to actually protect the environment.” He has not provided any further details.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune last summer said the program was unnecessary and burdensome to the cruise ship industry. “We’re committed to working with the Legislature to create a new and improved program that works for everyone,” Brune was quoted last summer, adding that perhaps an automated monitoring system might be the answer.
Hannan said she is still waiting for the state to propose an alternative to the Ocean Rangers, which were Coast Guard-certified marine engineers or other trained personnel put aboard the ships in Alaska waters to monitor for compliance with state and federal marine discharge and pollution rules.
The governor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year does not restore the program and provides only a one-sentence explanation: “The department will continue working on a replacement for the program that is more efficient.”
Kiehl said he is disappointed at the lack of a proposal from DEC.
Funding for the Ocean Rangers came from the state-administered commercial passenger vessel tax that was part of a 2006 voter-approved initiative. About $20 million of the anticipated $25 million in tax receipts this year will be shared with municipalities, including Skagway, where cruise ships offload their passengers. The tax is $34.50 per passenger.
The state’s $5 million share of the tax receipts paid for the Ocean Rangers and other programs. Without using the money to pay for the onboard pollution monitors, the money stays in the state general fund.
“That money is still coming in,” Kiehl said, and is available for appropriation.
Responding to residents’ complaints about cruise ship smoke last summer and not waiting on the state to restore the program, Skagway contacted Norwegian Cruise Line last fall and the company agreed to pay for third-party testing of emissions from ships that call on Skagway.
The testing will start with the opening of the 2020 cruise ship season and results will be shared with the public, Mayor Andrew Cremata said Oct. 6.
Norwegian’s ships made more than 50 stops in Skagway last year. The mayor hopes other cruise lines will sign on for the voluntary program. “That’s one of the first things on my list” for the new year, he said Dec. 30. Princess Cruises was the leader with port calls in Skagway last year at more than 120.