The cruise ship Infinity is seen leaving Ketchikan’s Berth 4 about two weeks after it hit and damaged downtown’s Berth 3. A slight dent in the side of the ship shows where it hit the dock. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

The state official overseeing Alaska’s cruise ship monitoring program is concerned about losing independent environmental inspectors on cruise ships. That’s despite public assurances by agency officials that the program isn’t needed. The inspectors, known as Ocean Rangers, are on the chopping block as Gov. Dunleavy’s budget cuts work their way through the legislature.

In a recent interview, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s top budget official laid out the Dunleavy administration’s case for removing inspectors from cruise ships.

“We get a lot of reporting from cruise ships, where they discharge, how much it is, those logs are now publicly available,” DEC’s budget officer Jeff Rogers said. “And all of that inspection and reporting activity will continue even without those 24/7 onsite observers, the Ocean Rangers.”

But those that work in the state’s cruise ship program note that without onboard inspectors, the state’s authority to monitor pollution from ships would be limited.

“The Ocean Rangers have been a critical part in our permitting process,” said Ed White, head of DEC’s cruise ship monitoring program. He’s worked with the Ocean Rangers since it was a pilot program in 2007.

“We only have the authority to go on board ships when a sample is being taken while they’re discharging,” he said.

About half of cruise ships that visited Alaska last year had a state wastewater discharge permit, he said. Land-based inspectors can board these vessels without an invitation, White said, “but only to observe their wastewater sampling and their wastewater equipment during that sample.”

By contrast, every large cruise ship in Alaska is required to allow an Ocean Ranger on board. These licensed marine engineers move freely around the vessel to observe operations.

In 2018, they were aboard for about two-thirds of the time. If they see a potential problem they report it to DEC and the Coast Guard. Last year, they logged 189 alleged environmental violations.

The program doesn’t cost Alaskans anything. It’s funded by the state’s cruise ship passenger fee — approved by voters in 2006. So any change to the Ocean Rangers program would require an act of the Legislature.

No bill has been filed and White said he and his staff haven’t seen any draft language.

Gershon Cohen helped author the 2006 ballot initiative that created the program. With Ocean Rangers continuing to log violations each year, he’s puzzled by the governor’s move.

“Why the state would want to get rid of a program that only protects our waters from international companies that have a long track record of repeat felonies is beyond me,” Cohen said.

But top DEC officials say there’s a broader concern over fairness.

“I think there’s a recognition on behalf of the governor that there’s no good reason to single out the cruise industry,” Rogers said. “To ask them to meet a requirement that is different and significantly above and beyond the regulatory requirement that every other industrial permittee has to meet.”

The program’s $3.8 million has been removed from the governor’s proposed budget. But without an act of the legislature, that money can’t be redirected, and the program’s mandate remains on the books.

The state is also constrained by the courts over how it can spend funds from cruise ship passenger fees.