Ocean Rangers fall victim to one-man-government-by-veto rule

Cruise ship passengers coming to Alaska are still paying the $4 fee to support the state program under which licensed marine engineers travel on the ships and serve as independent observers, making sure that environmental discharge rules are followed.

Passengers are paying the fee because it is part of a state law adopted by Alaska voters in 2006.

And the so-called Ocean Rangers are still aboard the floating cities along the Alaska coast this summer, thanks to fees collected in the past.

Alaska is the only state to have this requirement, but the Ocean Rangers won’t be traveling on the ships and keeping an eye on things next summer.

The Legislature refused to change the law and get rid of the rangers, but the one-man-government-by-veto administration has spoken.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $3.4 million to pay for Ocean Rangers on ships, though this action will not save the state money and passengers, if they are informed about this, may rightly wonder where their $4 is going. The money will collect in a state account, but it can only be used on Ocean Rangers unless the law is changed.

Dunleavy says he doesn’t like or agree with the law. Jason Brune, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, says he doesn’t like or agree with the law. So much for the sanctimony about the statutes.

They think it is unfair to the giants of the cruise ship industry, companies that are based outside the United States to avoid federal taxes, to be monitored in this fashion.

Ignoring the law, the governor has done a big favor for the cruise ship industry, though the companies are smart enough to refrain from openly celebrating this reduction in oversight.

The governor’s office released this justification for the veto: “There are many permittees for air emissions and wastewater discharge across Alaska, but the cruise ships are the only permittees to have around‐the‐clock observation for compliance.”

Brune told the Resource Development Council in March that getting rid of the Ocean Rangers was “near and dear to my heart.”

“People have said, ‘Ah, the industry put him up to this.’ No, This was, this was my baby, I talked with the governor about this one. When I was at RDC we worked on the cruise ship initiative, I was always grumpy about the Ocean Rangers,” Brune said.

The cruise ship companies and the RDC were also grumpy about the $46 per passenger tax that came with the initiative, claiming it was unfair. In 2010, the Legislature cut the tax to $34.50, made lower by subtracting municipal taxes that were in existence before 2008.

A temporary decline in passenger traffic, which had more to do with the national economic collapse than anything else, was blamed on the tax, which led to the reduction.

Cutting the remaining tax, on the specious grounds that it would increase private investment in Alaska, may be next, another favor to the cruise ship companies.

In the meantime, Brune remains grumpy about the Ocean Rangers. Because they are licensed engineers, the positions are hard to fill, which is why they are recruited from Outside.

“These are people that are basically breathing down the neck of folks on the cruise ships,” he told the RDC. “They’re not adding any additional environmental oversight or care to the environment. These people are not Alaskans predominately and no other industry in the state is regulated 24/7. Can you imagine having someone breathing down your neck at your office 24/7? It’s not appropriate,” Brune said.

“So we are working to try to eliminate that program. There has been some pushback.”

He said, “to set a standard for one industry that we don’t set for all the others is inappropriate, so we’re working to repeal that.”

This comparison is inappropriate.

In a phone interview, he said the state has to pay for berths on the ships, which helps the bottom line of the companies, which is another reason to do away with the program.

The best way to fix that is to amend the law and require the companies to provide space for the Ocean Rangers on the vessels.

Brune says that if the money had not been vetoed there would be no impetus to get the Legislature to change the program next year, which is what he wants. That makes sense only if Alaska wants a one-man-government-by-veto administration.

Brune says the state can better regulate cruise ships with new technology and other steps that don’t require putting contract engineers on ships. He hasn’t made the case well at all. His grumpiness is not sufficient.

The problem with Brune’s 24/7 complaint is that the cruise ships are traveling cities that cover thousands of miles in state waters, far beyond the sight of regulators. They aren’t like industries or offices that stay in one place. Preventing cruise ship pollution should be a DEC priority.

Some of the ships carry a total population of passengers and crew that exceeds Wrangell and Petersburg combined. In Skagway, the population can triple when a big vessel reaches the dock.

Tens of thousands of people are traveling on these ships in Alaska every summer day, meaning there are tens of thousands of reasons to keep the Ocean Rangers at work.


Dermot Cole6 Comments