Expensive bit of irony when it comes to reducing emissions

Following the latest EPA vs. the cruise industry story has been interesting. It’s a classic case of the federal government dictating to Alaska, and the affected parties not being ready for what’s about to come down the pike. Panic sets in at the eleventh hour, industry tries to come up with a solution, the state or local governments sue, and then it all gets worked out in federal court, usually with the parties gaining more time to fix what needs to be fixed at a slightly reduced cost, after attorneys’ fees.

But there is a distinct bit of irony in these emission discussions when it comes to Skagway. This port city knows it has an air pollution problem. All you have to do is look out your window on a day when ships are in port and the wind isn’t blowing very hard. Or check out the trees suffering up the hillside where the smoke loves to hang. At least the railroad has done its part by turning to cleaner burning locomotives, but that has not been enough. We live with the pollution because we have to – the ships drive our successful tourism-based economy.

One solution touted locally has been to find enough hydropower megawatts to enable some ships to plug in and turn off their engines while in port. We already have three hydropower projects serving the community, but they don’t generate enough excess power for even one ship to plug in. So some in town say we should have a fourth hydro project – a really big one way up the West Creek valley, with a storage dam and a tunnel shooting water down to a power station near the Dyea Flats. Proponents say the ships could plug in, the air would be cleaner, and in winter we could sell power to the Yukon for its mines.

This all sounds very rosy, until you consider who will have to put up the money for this megaproject. The local power company, AP&T, is trying to build a higher priority project near Haines, so we can quit shipping power down the inlet (this might free up some megawatts for one ship to plug in). AP&T therefore currently has no interest in building West Creek. It is saying a 27 Mw West Creek project would need to be financed by the Municipality of Skagway. That means our little borough would have to raise the cash to build the project, and locate the customers to pay for it over a very long time.

West Creek is going to be studied soon for its feasibility. We’re all about studying it to the hilt, especially if the state is paying most of the bill. So here are few questions for that study:

• In light of the recent EPA vs. Alaska cruise industry debate, wouldn’t it be feasible for the borough to wait and see if the cruise ships are going to be burning cleaner fuels in the next few years, as mandated by the federal government?
• And when the ships do conform, is it still going to be necessary for them to plug into a town where the smoke isn’t as bad as it used to be?
• And finally, what would happen if they decided it wasn’t worth it to plug in, or if the Yukon mines suddenly hit a slump? Who would be stuck paying the bill for this megaproject? – WJB

Addendum: Since this editorial first ran Aug. 10, we have had some feedback that it was viewed as an anti-cruise ship piece. Far from it! As we stated high up in the editorial, we were following the EPA vs. the cruise industry story with great interest – you may read a well-balanced report on the issue in the Aug. 10 issue. We realize that the industry has been trying to work out an agreement with the EPA and is frustrated that the agency has not budged. While we certainly support cleaner fuels, the 2015 deadline is probably unrealistic, and industry has some worthy solutions proposed. There needs to be a compromise with the end result being a healthier situation for all – cleaner air and a strong Alaska cruise market. Skagway needs both. The main irony we were trying to point out was that when that day for a compromise arrives, and we believe it will, then the need for a mega hydro project under the pretense that it will give us cleaner air may not be necessary and will be something the residents of this small community cannot afford. - WJB