Federal court takes aim at cruise ship pollution as state reduces oversight in favor to industry

In early June, executives of Carnival Cruise Lines appeared in a Miami court and entered a guilty plea, accepting a $20 million fine for pollution violations in the Caribbean and Alaska.

“While serving 5 years of probation, all Carnival related cruise lines vessels eligible to trade in U.S. ports were required to comply with a court approved and supervised environmental compliance plan (ECP), including audits by an independent company and oversight by a Court Appointed Monitor. Numerous violations have been identified by the company, the outside auditor, and the court’s monitor during the first two years of probation, including “major non-conformities” as defined by the ECP,” the Justice Department said.

“Carnival admitted it was guilty of committing six violations of probation. Two of the violations involved interfering with the court’s supervision of probation by sending undisclosed teams to ships to prepare them for the independent inspections required during probation,” the Justice Department said.

Carnival, which owns Princess Cruises, Holland America and numerous other companies, is the biggest tourism business in Alaska and its ships, hotels and on-land transportation facilities in Southeast and along the road system cater to more than 700,000 people a year.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy asked the federal judge to be lenient with Carnival and think about the positive impact of cruise ships. “We understand that the Carnival group of companies has made mistakes,” Dunleavy said in a letter, reported by CoastAlaska. He said that Alaska’s regulatory environment is “tough but fair” and that Carnival makes a strong effort to comply with the rules.

What Dunleavy didn’t say in that letter is that he was about to make life easier for the cruise ship industry by eliminating funding for a program, one which costs the state nothing, to provide environmental oversight on large vessels.

With the veto of the voter-approved Ocean Ranger program, Dunleavy is doing a big favor for the cruise ship industry, one that the state claims the industry did not seek. It will be up to the Legislature to decide if it will attempt to overturn the Dunleavy veto.

Getting rid of the monitors will not save the state any money. The 2006 voter initiative that created the program included a $4 per person fee to pay for the rangers, a total of about $3.5 million a year. The program will remain on the books, but without funding.

The Ocean Rangers are licensed marine engineers who travel on the ships as independent observers on cruise ships that have at least 250 overnight berths, responsible for making sure that environmental laws are followed.

When Dunleavy announced his vetoes, a reporter asked him why would the state stop this environmental program weeks after the industry was fined for polluting waters. CoastAlaska has had better coverage of this story than any other news organization.

We believe that there are ways to actually protect the environment,” Dunleavy said. He couldn’t say anything more.

“And I’m not sure if we have one of our folks here that want to speak to that in any detail,” said Dunleavy.

His press secretary repeated the same non-answer.

One of the long-time opponents of the Ocean Ranger program is Jason Brune, now the commissioner of environmental conservation and formerly an employee of the Resource Development Council, which opposed the initiative that led to the ranger program in 2006.

Brune told the RDC in March that getting rid of the Ocean Ranger monitors is “near and dear to my heart.” He said this would show Alaska is “open for business,” a ridiculous claim.

“People have said, ‘Ah, the industry put him up to this.’ No, This was, this was my baby, I talked to 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,” he said.

“These are people that are basically breathing down the necks of folks on the cruise ships. They’re not adding any additional environmental oversight or care for 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 and the governor are wrong. That this comes shortly after the federal court finding against Carnival drives home the need for increased monitoring.

The cruise ships operate 24/7 in Alaska waters, which is all the reason needed to continue this program.

It’s easy to understand why the cruise ship companies would like to see the Ocean Rangers go away, but the program deserves to remain in place and the veto should be overridden by the Legislature.

Dermot Cole6 Comments