BAR HARBOR, Maine — The growth of the cruise ship industry here over the past 20 years has not come without growing pains. As town officials have tried to balance the industry’s impacts and economic benefits with the desire of local residents to protect the town’s character and relatively clean environment.
Possible pollution from the ships — 118 visits are scheduled this year — has been a concern, though Maine has regulated cruise ship discharges within three miles of shore since 2006. Many ships also have their own policies against discharging even treated waste close to shore.
But on Monday, those concerns became reality when a small cruise ship allegedly released waste into the harbor as it was tied up to the town pier. Officials are trying to determine why it happened and how to reduce the risk of future incidents that could result in unhealthful pollution along some of the most visited shoreline in the state.
Charlie Phippen, Bar Harbor’s harbor master, said Wednesday that the release came from the Independence, a 210-foot ship that can carry 100 passengers. The incident involved only gray water, which usually is drainage from sinks and showers and does not contain sewage, he said. Phippen said the accidental spill happened around 10:30 Monday morning, but was not sure how much was released.
“It was enough to discolor the water around the ship and had some odor to it,” Phippen said.
The ship’s captain shut off a secondary valve to stop the release when it was discovered, according to Phippen. He said he reported the incident to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and also notified the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory’s community environmental health lab, which monitors water quality around MDI.
Phippen said the Portland-based vessel is expected to return to Bar Harbor on July 25.
“We’re always concerned with that kind of accident,” Phippen said, later noting that the last similar incident in the harbor occurred in 2004. “We’re assuming it’s not [going to continue to be] an issue.”
Attempts Wednesday to contact DEP officials and American Cruise Lines, the company that owns and operates the ship, were unsuccessful.
Jane Disney, a town councilor who is also director of the community lab, said Wednesday that the lab tested the water next to the ship about two hours after the discharge was detected. She said the lab found levels of the bacteria enterococcus at 228 parts per 100 million, slightly more than twice the concentration level of the bacteria that correlates to illness in humans.
Disney said that, luckily, none of the bacteria was detected at a beach next to the pier, where tourists often go during their visits downtown. She said that the lab planned to test the beach again later Wednesday afternoon.
“Gray water can have as much bacteria in it as [regular sewage waste],” Disney said. “[But] I don’t think there are going to be any lingering public health effects.”
The issue came up at the Town Council meeting Tuesday night, when Councilor Matt Horton proposed not using cruise ship fee revenue for air and water quality testing or for developing a watershed model for Northeast Creek, which drains into Frenchman Bay.
The town’s annual budget calls for $15,000 in cruise ship fee revenue to go toward air and water quality testing and $30,000 toward development of the watershed model. None of the money has been spent yet.
Horton said Tuesday night that he thought the money could be better used elsewhere, such as to pay for new railings on the municipal pier.
When Disney brought up Monday’s apparent cruise ship discharge, Horton said that incident and how the town uses cruise ship fee revenues are separate issues.
“I don’t see how $15,000 would have stopped that,” Horton said. “The damage is done.”
Disney suggested that the community health lab could be hired to conduct the water quality testing on a regular basis, which Councilor Paul Paradis interpreted as a conflict of interest on Disney’s part. Disney could not simultaneously speak as director of the lab and as an elected councilor while the council was deciding what to do with the money, Paradis suggested.
With a council vote, Horton, Paradis, Sandy McFarland and Peter St. Germain all decided Disney had a conflict, after which she left the council chambers while the discussion continued.
Councilors Rob Jordan and Town Council Chairman Ruth Eveland each said that they would want to find another funding source for the environmental programs before they could support not using cruise ship fee revenue for that purpose. Jordan also said he was opposed to Horton’s suggestion because the budget was approved by voters at town meeting.
“I think we’ll be letting the voters and community down [by removing the budgeted funding for the environmental programs],” he said.
Horton’s proposal failed by a 3-3 tie vote. Horton, Paradis and McFarland supported the measure but Jordan, Eveland and St. Germain all voted to leave the funding for the programs as it is.