By Larry Persily

Though Gov. Mike Dunleavy succeeded last year in stopping the Ocean Rangers program that put nearly two dozen marine engineers aboard cruise ships to monitor for pollution, legislators this year are working toward restoring the onboard observers.

The House on March 3 passed an operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 which includes about $3.4 million for Ocean Rangers. The money comes from the state tax on cruise ship passengers — the tax did not stop even though the governor last year vetoed spending the money.

The pollution-monitor program was part of a citizens initiative approved by voters in 2006.

This year’s budget with the appropriation restored is awaiting action in the Senate and could face a gubernatorial veto again this year.

In addition to fighting to restore the funding, supporters of the Ocean Rangers are battling against the Dunleavy administration’s effort to change the program in state law, turning it from mandatory onboard observers to annual inspections at the start of the summer cruise season, with random and targeted inspections during the season.

Though the administration’s original legislative proposal last year was to repeal the program in its entirety in state statute, the Department of Environmental Conservation in February rolled out a revised bill, saying it “enhances the department’s existing cruise ship program rather than simply repealing the Ocean Ranger statutes.”

In addition to ending mandatory onboard pollution monitors and relying on start-of-season and targeted inspections, the “enhancements” include directing about half of the tax receipts to a grant or loan program to help fund onshore wastewater treatment facilities in cruise ship ports of call.

The state would develop the program next year and could request legislative approval to start making loans or grants in 2022, according to a Department of Environmental Conservation analysis of the bill.

The Skagway borough assembly, Ketchikan city council and others have gone on record in support of fully restoring the Ocean Rangers.

The new version of the governor’s legislation, House Bill 74, was heard last month in the House State Affairs Committee, with no further committee action since then and two more committees after State Affairs. No Senate committee has yet held a hearing on the legislation (Senate Bill 70).

Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan, who also represents Skagway, does not support the administration’s attempt to change the program from season-long onboard monitors to spot checks.

“I don’t think we are inclined to take the view of the department for how to best monitor” cruise ships, Hannan said Monday. Hannan sits on the House Resources Committee, where the governor’s bill would go next if it makes it out of House State Affairs.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune last summer said the Ocean Rangers program was unnecessary and burdensome to the cruise ship industry. The state-administered program put Coast Guard-certified marine engineers or other trained personnel aboard the ships in Alaska waters to monitor for compliance with state and federal marine discharge and pollution rules.

The onboard monitors were observers, not inspectors, the department told the House Resources Committee on Feb. 4. The observers did not find that many violations, the department said, an indication that the money could be used more effectively elsewhere, such as to improve community wastewater plants.

The administration’s legislation also would change the tax structure for the 2021 cruise season, with large ships paying roughly the same as they do now in a combination of the Ocean Rangers and environmental compliance fees — $5 per berth — but with a $1 discount for any ship that maintains a state-approved electronic wastewater monitoring system.