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Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters

Alaska's cruise ship ballot measure sails to victory


cartoon drawing of a ship named 'poisoner of the seas' sporting a banner that reads "vote (no) here" and the caption 'Alaska voters refuse to walk the plank'

Responsible Cruising in Alaska (RCA) recently won a David vs. Goliath battle against the billion-dollar cruise industry. RCA is an ad hoc group of Alaskans led by Gershon Cohen, director of EII's Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters (C-SAW); Joe Geldhof, a maritime union attorney; and Michelle Meyer, co-ordinator of RCA's volunteer effort. On August 22, with RCA's support, Alaska passed Ballot Measure 2, the world's most comprehensive statute to control cruise ship pollution, reform taxation of the industry, and regulate its business practices.

The effort to enact meaningful cruise ship statutes in Alaska has taken six years. Following revelations of multiple felony dumping convictions in 1999 and 2000, C-SAW began leading the effort to stop cruise ship pollution in Alaska, joining efforts with Bluewater Network and others in California, KAHEA (the Hawai'ian Environmental Alliance) and the Sierra Club in Hawai'i, and Friends of Casco Bay in Maine. Independent cruise experts Ross Klein in Newfoundland and Howard Breen in British Columbia provided invaluable informational support to the US effort.

The new law requires cruise ships to apply for discharge permits and meet the same water quality standards as all other dischargers into state waters. It also requires an independent marine engineer observer to accompany every cruise ship in Alaskan waters. These observers will take wastewater samples, monitor discharge events and equipment maintenance, and verify log book entries from an industry convicted of illegal dumping, tampering with pollution control equipment, and falsifying records submitted to the Coast Guard. Citizen lawsuit provisions adapted from the Clean Water Act will now apply to the industry for the first time, allowing citizens to sue the lines for non-compliance or sue the government for failure to enforce the law.

Taxation provisions in the law will ensure next season's cruise ship profits are shared more fairly with the communities affected by the industry. The state of Alaska will receive a third of all onboard gambling profits, and a tax exemption from 1998 will be revoked, requiring the industry to pay corporate income taxes on all revenue. A $50- per-passenger "head tax," required by federal law to be spent "servicing the industry," will be distributed to communities to offset the costs of infrastructure used by the cruise lines. These head-tax funds will be spent on dock and harbor construction and maintenance, road repairs required due to bus traffic near cruise ship terminals, improving local emergency services that treat ship passengers, and maintaining public trails and public bathrooms. The costs for this infrastructure have until now been paid by the state or through local taxes. The new law will raise an estimated $80 million in revenue every year from an industry that currently brings about one million people to Alaska each summer.

Cruise lines will also be required to disclose the commissions they receive from on-shore tours and gift shops. For years, the commission-kickback system has favored the wealthiest businesses, often owned by the cruise lines or their subsidiaries. Locally owned stores and tours that can't afford the exorbitant commission rate are locked out of the market. As a result, the lion's share of on-shore cruise money spent in Alaska finds its way back to cruise corporation headquarters.

Fighting Goliath

The cruise lines hired a national public relations firm and spent almost three million dollars in the final six months of their campaign against Ballot Measure 2. In contrast, RCA's campaign budget totaled approximately $7,500. The cruise industry bombarded the public with TV, radio, and full-page newspaper ads, Yahoo banners, and a never-ending stream of deceitful glossy mailers in the closing weeks of the election.

Despite the propaganda blitz, a majority of Alaskans voted in favor of Ballot Measure 2. Within days of the victory, activists and government officials from Hawai'i, Washington, Belize, Croatia, and Greenland contacted RCA to discuss how provisions of the new Alaskan law could be applied to their own regions.

According to C-SAW's Gershon Cohen, one of the most positive aspects of the victory was the demonstration that Alaska's election was not for sale. "The industry spent a boatload of money to defeat the ballot measure. We overcame the advertising-spending deficit by reaching out to people through earned media and personal contact. Alaskans showed their votes weren't for sale to the highest bidder, bucking the long-standing statewide and national trend that has left so many Americans feeling disenfranchised by the political system."

cartoon drawing of a small character labelled 'csaw' with a slingshot facing a multi-armed one-eyed monster, arms labeled for opposing organizations and a tatto that says I (heart) miami; stone flying from slingshot labelled ballot #2; caption reading ; hmm... nw cruise assn, ak travel industry assn, ak for protecting our economy, pac west p.r.... looks like a fair fight to me...'

As the final days of the election campaign approached, the cruise industry became more desperate. The glossy mailers moved further from the issues, making wild claims about the impending collapse of the Alaskan tourism economy should the measure pass. This fear-based campaign was dealt a serious blow four days before the election, when RCA revealed that the Northwest Cruise Association (NWCA), a Vancouver, BC trade group, had attempted to establish absentee polling stations in rural Alaska, in clear violation of state election laws. The NWCA intended to have one of its representatives posted at the voting location to verify the identity documents of Alaska voters. The Alaska Division of Elections thwarted the attempt the night before it was to begin; had they not intervened, the cruise lines would have been guilty of felony election fraud. The polling booth scandal convinced several major newspapers to support the new law.

Now that the vote is over, and a related national bill sponsored by Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) is pending before Congress, C-SAW will watchdog the regulatory process as rules are drafted to implement Alaska's new statute. The industry is expected to sue the state to block adoption and use its political muscle in the Alaska Legislature to undercut as much of the new law as possible before provisions are put into effect. Alaska's Constitution does not allow the legislature to throw out a law for two years after passage, but it does permit "minor" amendments. C-SAW will also continue to work with communities around the world seeking to establish a level playing field with the industrial-scale cruise business, which has actively worked to circumvent environmental, taxation, and fair-business practice laws for decades.


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