A representative from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation visited Ketchikan today. In a talk with local business leaders, she outlined how this year’s changes to cruise ship wastewater dumping rules were not as harmful as some had feared.

“My staff and I care deeply about the environment,” said Michelle Bonnet Hale, director of the Water Division with the sate DEC during the regular Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce lunch. “We live here, we fish here, we recreate here. We have a vested interest ourselves in protecting the water in Alaska.”

The new legislation passed this year, known as HB80, eased a number of regulations on when, where and under what conditions those ships could dump that water in Alaska’s ocean.

Hale posed four questions at the beginning of her talk to the Chamber, hoping to address fears raised by the legislation. One: will copper in cruise ship wastewater harm salmon’s natural sense of smell and their ability to navigate to spawning creeks? Two: will the new legislation roll back previous environmental protections? Three: is raw sewage being dumped into Alaska waters? And four: will fishing be affected in those areas around cruise ship wastewater dumps?

The DEC representative systematically addressed each question.

She cites studies that show while salmon’s olfactories – in other words, noses – are affected by copper, the amount in cruise ship wastewater is not enough to do so.

Hale told the Chamber that HB80’s deregulation does not affect critical legislation passed in the early 2000s designed to protect Alaska waters.  She says changing those laws would require a different legislative process.

That earlier legislation, she notes in addressing the raw sewage question, prevents ships from dumping toxic material into the water.

“The discharge from advanced wastewater treatment systems is a clear liquid, it’s basically water,” Hale says. “There’s a little bit of metal, a little bit of ammonia. Any of the treatment systems in Southeast, the wastewater on the ships is treated to a higher level. A significantly higher level.”

In addressing concerns over how fishing might be affected, Hale says the almost immediate dilution of wastewater in the ocean minimizes its effect on aquatic life.

House Bill 80 was highly controversial when passed earlier this year. And, concerns over the deregulations on wastewater dumping have not necessarily gone away with time.

James Sullivan is the legislative organizer of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau.

“The Parnell administration and this legislature, they’ll be the first administration to lower water quality standards since Alaska became a state,” says Sullivan. “If anything we should be working very hard to improve water quality.”

Even more, Sullivan says, DEC is hurting efforts to build on improvements already made by the cruise ship industry.

“The cruise industry made great improvements in the last decade,” says Sullivan. “But those improvements came because the people of Alaska forced the industry to improve. What the DEC has done is make it easier for the industry to say ‘we can stop, we’ve done enough, we don’t have to continue to improve.'”

Hale also fielded a number of questions unrelated to this year’s legislation, such as mining prospects on Prince of Wales Island.

She says DEC is monitoring new mining ventures on POW, and how wastewater from those projects might affect seas in Southeast.

Hale answered another question regarding potential radioactive contamination in water from Japan in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Hale says DEC has not conducted an extensive review of seawater that might contain radioactivity, but her agency is monitoring any developments.