What others say: Ferries need to find a better solution for their wastewater

  • Wednesday, July 15, 2015 5:47pm
  • Opinion

We love our ferries here in Southeast. We also love the pristine waters in which they sail. We’d like to keep both. That’s why the Alaska state ferries are long overdue for an upgrade in their water treatment practices.

Currently, eight of the state’s 11 ferries are permitted to discharge their wastewater virtually anywhere; they cannot do so while moored. But it’s not so much about where they dump: It’s about what they dump.

On our state ferries, solid waste is ground up, mixed with gray water (dirty water from sinks, dish washing and showers), then treated with chlorine tablets. That mixture is dumped into the ocean as needed.

This process became standard in the 1970s but was thrown out by cruise ships at the turn of the century. They thought it was obsolete and didn’t meet clean-water rules.

Yes, you read that right — many of our state ferries are using decades-old technology to treat wastewater.

We feel there must be a better way. And maybe it needs to begin with the regulations.

At present, ferries are in complete compliance. As noted in our news article on this topic, “… despite laxer treatment rules than apply to cruise ships, Alaska’s ferries meet all the requirements placed on them. Although the largest ferries operate under the DEC’s small cruise ship permit, all 11 vessels operate under an Environmental Protection Agency general permit.”

Those rules were set 40 years ago. We’re not experts on wastewater treatment, but we’d wager some changes could be made to lessen the environmental impact these vessels are leaving on our marine ecosystems.

Anyone who has a fish tank knows that chlorine and marine life don’t mix. It gives fish and marine invertebrates chemical burns — it damages their gills and can dissolve into their bloodstream, causing damage inside and out. Even at low levels, chlorine causes stress for marine life. That stress, in turn, can make organisms susceptible to disease. Of course, when it comes to toxicity, dilution is the solution.

We’re happy to know the two new Alaska-class ferries coming on board as early as 2018 will not dump wastewater; they have holding tanks and will pump off their black water (like three of our existing ferries do) to shoreside stations.

We understand that given the state’s budget situation, a fix may not be affordable. That said, we’d like to see those who govern our ferries step up and at the very least improve a decades-old water treatment plan.

— Juneau Empire, July 7

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