In response to concerns from the municipality, Norwegian Cruise Lines agreed to pay for third-party emissions monitoring in Skagway starting next summer.
Towards the end of September, dozens of residents complained to the municipality about blue smoke from a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship hanging over the Taiya Inlet.
The cruise line told Borough Manager Brad Ryan that the thick plume residents saw is actually water vapor created by the ship’s “scrubbing system.”
“They’re saying it’s not pollution, it’s primarily steam,” Ryan says.
Norwegian and many other cruise lines have installed “scrubbers” to help their ships comply with international emissions requirements that will be implemented next year. The scrubbers use water to capture harmful emissions released while burning high-sulfur fuel.
This process releases steam from the ship’s smokestack.
“And that’s clean exhaust because they’re using the scrubbers,” Ryan says. “So it’s really a temperature change that has to do with hot exhaust coming out into a cold environment.”
Mayor Andrew Cremata says that the cruise line and the municipality still felt it necessary to address the public’s concerns about emissions.
“They agreed to pay for us to choose a third-party environmental engineer to monitor some boats early next season. And we’ll get some test results back and we’ll have those available to the public.”
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) received nine emissions complaints from Skagway this year. The agency’s Cruise Ship Program responds to complaints by conducting an emissions reading when staff are available. This summer one emissions violation was issued to a Princess Cruise Lines ship in Skagway at the end of May.
Mayor Cremata feels that ADEC has not been effectively following up on complaints.
“Because we had been making reports to ADEC and you know they respond to them, but this was going on throughout the season with different vessels,” Cremata says. “I felt like we weren’t getting any kind of real response other than, ‘Oh thanks for sending this to us. We’ll get back to you,’ which really never happened.”
ADEC’s cruise ship monitors issue violations based on the opacity of plumes from the smokestacks of the ships. In other words, how thick and cloudy the smoke is coming from the ship. The steam released by the scrubbers makes it difficult to determine how thick the smoke is.
ADEC Cruise Ship Program Manager Denise Wiltse says that while the scrubbers reduce sulfur emissions, the vapor makes it difficult to monitor the exhaust. In addition, the scrubbers don’t necessarily reduce the number of small inhalable particles released by cruise ships.
“What we have noticed is yes it is helping with the emissions, but maybe not so much on the particulate matter side of things,” Wiltse says.
Particulate matter is a concern because it can cause respiratory problems for the public. The National Parks Service and the Skagway Traditional Council are currently working to install air quality monitors around town that measure particulate matter.
Mayor Cremata says he hopes that other cruise lines will also agree to third party emissions monitoring next season.