PUBLISHED: 6:47 AM on Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Watchdog group says cruise access hampered
Cruise ship industry officials, whose efforts pour more than $1 billion into the Alaska economy annually, have vowed to cooperate with a state environmental inspection program in the wake of pollution issues and reports that some vessels were resisting state inspections.

John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, said July 3 that the industry wants to give the state whatever access is necessary to conduct the inspections. A statement issued by the association said the nine-member cruise lines are reiterating their commitment to making the Ocean Ranger program work. The statement also contained statements from Princess Cruises and Holland America pledging their cooperation with the inspections.

Two environmental watchdog groups, meanwhile, have served a 45-day notice of intent to sue alleged violators.

The controversy stems from a June 23 report written by Paul Johnsen, manager of Crowley Marine Service, which is contracted to oversee the Ocean Ranger program. Johnsen said it appears that 10 of 28 ships in the cruise ship fleet currently operating in Alaska are not providing Alaska's Ocean Rangers with sufficient access to the ships and ship personnel necessary to perform the environmental oversight functions delineated in state law.

The Ocean Ranger program, within the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, was created with passage of a 2006 statewide ballot initiative stemming from citizen concerns over discharges from cruise ships into Alaska waters.

Alaska is the first and only state in the country to require U.S. Coast Guard-licensed marine engineers on board vessels to act as independent observers monitoring state environmental and marine discharge requirements and to ensure that passengers and crew are protected from improper sanitation, health and safety practices.

In his status report on the Ocean Ranger program, Johnsen said access has been restricted to certain locations on the ship, that Ocean Rangers have been refused permission to accompany the ship's environmental officers, and that Ocean Rangers' time available to interact with the environmental officers has been severely constrained. Ocean Rangers were also forbidden to ask questions of ship engineers responsible for certain ship equipment, and Ocean Ranger access has been restricted from logbooks, record books, equipment manuals and so forth, he said.

"The general feeling is that both Holland America and Princess Cruises have issued guidelines to the onboard crews on how to restrict and control the observations of the rangers," Johnsen wrote in his report. "When the onboard crews follow these guidelines strictly, the rangers do not have satisfactory access to do their jobs properly. There are no hard feelings between the rangers and the onboard crews, but the results are still unacceptable," he said.

"The law is quite clear," said Gershon Cohen, of Haines, speaking for Responsible Cruising in Alaska and the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters. "The state has given broad authority to the Ocean Rangers to go anywhere on the ship, any time, talk to anybody they want to, free access. We will sue. We will bring charges against all the lines we believe are guilty."

Cohen helped write the Alaska Cruise Ship Ballot Initiative, which addressed taxation, disclosure and pollution prevention into state law. One provision requires the cruise lines to provide full access to licensed marine engineers working for the state to oversee pollution control practices and equipment.

Bruce Bustamante, a spokesman for Princess Tours, said he felt his company had good communications with program managers.

"Our technical department is working to assure that the Ocean Rangers can work on the ships," he said. "We're going to work to make sure it happens."

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