Boaters have a dirty secret.
Many of them are breaking the law by dumping their raw waste into the water. This includes dumping in No Discharge Zones, areas that the government has said should be free of any waste — even treated waste.
But because it’s difficult to enforce, let alone quantify how big the problem really is, the risk of getting caught is minimal.
“Everyone is winking and blinking while the law is being broken,” says Mike Sciulla, vice president of boater association Boat U.S.
But while boaters aren’t paying for their actions, the boating industry may. If the problem is as widespread as some believe it to be, it could be become a PR disaster, hurting the industry when it’s already struggling to hold on to customers.
The problem, really, is two-fold. First, growing concern about the issue seems to indicate that the problem is worse than originally believed, and no one seems to know just how big it is. Second, disagreement about the proper solution is nearly as widespread.
Supporters of the Saxton Bill, which would essentially give boaters a choice between using holding tanks and onboard treatment devices in No Discharge Zones (NDZ), will tell you it’s a significant problem, one that requires a new piece of legislation. One Saxton Bill supporter estimated that 50–80 percent of boaters with on-board toilets are dumping raw waste in tidal waters.
But those who oppose the Saxton Bill point out the successes achieved by current NDZ regulations and suggest ways the current system can be improved.
Finding a solution
The solution, some say, is to give boaters a choice for disposing of their waste in NDZs through adoption of the Saxton Bill. The reason boaters are breaking the law, according to Saxton Bill supporters, is that they’re having trouble meeting current regulations, which require them to use holding tanks until they can empty them at a pumpout facility. Also known as H.R. 1027, the bill would allow boaters to choose between using holding tanks, also known as Type III marine sanitation devices (MSDs), and Type 1a MSDs, which treat onboard waste by subjecting it to chlorine or heat to kill bacteria before releasing it into the water.
Supporters, such as BoatU.S. and Raritan Engineering, say this would be far better for the environment than the mass dumping of raw waste allegedly occurring now. In fact, some allege that Type 1 onboard treatment systems are better for the environment than municipal wastewater treatment systems.
However, those who oppose the Saxton Bill don’t believe Type 1a MSDs do enough to treat waste before putting it back into the water and allege that the chlorine that is produced, while produced from salt water, may be harmful to marine life.
The standard proposed in the Saxton Bill for a Type 1a MSD involves the release of treated effluent with 10 coliform per 100 ml or less and a reduction in biological oxygen demand of 35 percent. There currently are two Type 1 MSDs that meet this standard.
The Saxton Bill also would dramatically raise the 25-year-old standard for treated waste being dumped within three miles of shore – a standard even the EPA says is out of date.
“We can’t get to everything we would like to get to as quickly as we would like to,” says Suzanne Schwartz, director of the EPA’s oceans and coastal protection division. “Until very recently, vessel discharges hadn’t been noticed,” something she says is changing.
Lastly, supporters claim that the bill would provide an incentive for pollution control manufacturers to develop more technologically advanced equipment.
Lacking the data
Sciulla says the issue of marine sanitation is “one of the most disturbing public policy cases I’ve had over my last 25 years at BoatU.S.”
Despite the association’s concerns, however, it has no data on the level of compliance its members or boaters in general are practicing.
“Out on the water today, most people are not obeying the marine sanitation laws,” says Sciulla. “That’s from talking to people and following the issue for a couple of decades. If everyone who had a holding tank actually pulled up to the pumpout stations to use them, there would be extremely long lines.”
BoatU.S. isn’t the only one without data, however. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t sure to what extent boaters are complying with current regulations either. And Dometic, a holding tank manufacturer that is firmly opposed to the Saxton Bill, only has limited data on a few No Discharge Zones where regulations seem to be working.
Charles B. Husick, a Saxton Bill supporter, former president and chairman of Chris Craft Boat Corp. and an engineer, asks whether it’s necessary to prove that the present technology doesn’t work.
“Why should we have to prove that holding tanks don’t work in order to use a new and better technology?” he asks, referring to a Type 1a marine sanitation device.
Whether or not his question is valid, however, the EPA is looking into whether the current legislation is working before it decides whether to support new legislation, such as the Saxton Bill, or regulatory changes.
Do current regulations work?
Saxton Bill supporters argue that there are several reasons why current NDZ regulations don’t work.
One of the requirements for states trying to establish the most common type of NDZ is that there be enough pumpouts in the area to support the boating population. States must submit a list of those pumpouts, which then are distributed to boaters.
In a perfect world, all boaters passing through an NDZ would have easy access to a pumpout when they were ready to empty their holding tank. However, Saxton Bill supporters point out that we’re not living in a perfect world.
For one, they say the pumpouts that currently exist aren’t being maintained and thus are often out of service. In addition, some say there aren’t enough of them, which makes finding and using one inconvenient. Finally, they point out that enforcement of pumpout use is both virtually nonexistent and next to impossible.
Dometic, however, says the current system can and should work, with further education and an attitude adjustment on the part of boaters and marina operators. In fact, Ed McKiernan, president of the SeaLand division of Dometic Corp., has submitted a white paper in opposition to H.R. 1027.
The company cites examples of places where pumpouts have made a difference, such as Avalon Harbor, Calif., and says lawful use of holding tanks is the only environmentally friendly way to keep our nation’s tidal waters clean.
Dometic also points out that enforcement can also be a problem for Type 1a devices. While it is difficult to enforce use of holding tanks, it also is difficult to enforce proper use and maintenance of onboard treatment devices.
Saxton Bill supporters have suggested that the EPA hasn’t been willing to consider dumping anything in No Discharge Zones, whether it would benefit water quality or not. Like Dometic, the EPA doesn’t seem to recognize that there is a problem, some supporters have claimed. If true, however, that seems to be changing.
“We think Mr. Saxton is raising some serious questions about whether the program is working,” says Schwartz.
As a result, the agency is now seeking approval to conduct a series of surveys intended to help the EPA determine whether current regulations are effective, and if not, why.
To no one’s surprise, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, of which both Dometic and Raritan are members, is taking a middle of the road standpoint. The association is not supporting the Saxton Bill, but it says the infrastructure that supports holding tanks and waste treatment technology both need improvement.
“We support both systems – pumpouts and onboard treatment,” says John McKnight, director of environmental safety and compliance for NMMA. “We’d like to see … the choice made by the boaters about what they’d like to use.”
BoatU.S., a Saxton Bill supporter, also is arguing for boaters’ choice. The difference is that NMMA doesn’t want to get there through the Saxton Bill.
“Let’s get with onboard treatment people and sit down with EPA and come up with effluent guidelines,” McKnight suggests.
He says the solution is a “regulatory fix,” not a new law. The language within the code of federal regulations in the Clean Water Act needs to be modified, he explains.
“We need the arguments between the companies to stop and to work together to find out how onboard treatment systems can be qualified as treatment technology for No Discharge Zones and how we can encourage more new pumpouts and better maintenance of existing pumpouts,” states McKnight.
However, he admits that NMMA’s efforts to make progress on this issue have stalled.
Are boaters bad?
If 50 to 80 percent of boaters are breaking the law by dumping raw waste into the water, it might seem appropriate to blame the problem on them and take action to restrict their access to the most environmentally sensitive regions within our nation’s bodies of water.
However, while he admits that a large percentage of boaters are breaking the law by dumping untreated waste overboard, Sciulla says the problem isn’t with boaters.
“Our members are as green as anyone else out there,” he explains. “They are as close to the water as anyone can get, and they don’t want to boat in dirty water.”
“We are tired of recreational boaters being singled out as the bad guy when it comes to pollution of our waters,” says Sciulla. “It is very convenient for officials to point at the recreational boaters and go ahead and promulgate restrictive regulations, like the state of Rhode Island.”
Sciulla points out that farms and municipal treatment plants, for example, are much larger sources of water pollution.
BoatU.S. is in opposition to the establishment of No Discharge Zones, the number of which is slowly growing.
“Our primary argument is against a state that declares the entire state’s water a NDZ without doing any significant testing whatsoever that recreational boaters are the source of the pollution problem,” Sciulla explains.
Part of the problem with use of pumpout systems may lead back to the effort marinas and parks are putting forth in offering the service to boaters, according to Ed McKiernan.
“A lot of this has to do with the personal attitude on the part of the marina operator,” he says. “The people who we know who are really doing this – who are aggressive about this – look at it as making a statement.”
While the Marina Operations Association of America says it has yet to determine its members’ attitudes about use of pumpouts, it is pursuing a pumpout training program, which McKiernan supports. The association said in July that it planned to submit a proposal to the National Fish & Wildlife Service this summer in which the government agency would provide MOAA with 2 to 1 funding for a workshop for marina operators and staff in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
In this watershed, nutrient levels must be reduced by 40 percent by the year 2010, explains Mari Lou Livingood, MOAA director of program development, and these are the type of programs the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service supports. It would help reduce nutrient levels, while educating the industry and public about how they can participate in cleaning up recreational waters, she explains.
Livingood says if the workshops are successful, she hopes it extends to No Discharge Zones throughout the country.
The bottom line? Money
While many agree part of the solution is education, it isn’t the whole solution. Part of the problem comes down to money.
The federal government and several state governments have provided grants for many years for marinas to buy pumpout equipment; however, it seems many marina operators don’t know that there also are funds available to fix the equipment when it breaks, so pumpout equipment often gets left broken for long periods of time, according to some reports.
In addition, marinas that take advantage of the federal grants, provided through the Wallop-Breaux Trust Fund, can charge a maximum of $5 per pumpout, which means they often are operating the systems at a loss, when staff and maintenance are taken into consideration.
The industry is trying to change this, however. A request to raise the maximum charge for marinas that use federal grant money to $10 per pumpout has been submitted.
Private marinas charge an average of $20 per pumpout, according to some sources, which is likely to discourage some boaters from using them, argue Saxton Bill supporters.
The best choice?
Though Saxton Bill supporters’ primary argument seems to be that boaters should be able to use Type 1a MSDs because current regulations aren’t working, many also argue that Type 1a devices are better for the environment than holding tanks because even when pumpouts do work, municipal waste treatment facilities often aren’t effective.
City systems get overloaded because of summer vacationers, says Kim Shinn of Raritan, this means three to four times the population on land than in the summer time. As a result, many municipal systems are operating above their design capacities. In addition, strong rains can cause problems.
“Municipal sewage plants overflow,” says Sciulla. “It happens all the time along our coasts.
“… we believe that the Type 1 is superior to municipal sewage systems,” he explains. “We know what a Type 1a will do. We don’t know what a wastewater municipal system will do.”
The EPA admits there are occasional problems with municipal treatment plants, but says discharge of raw sewage into the water is getting less and less common. The EPA is currently working with states and municipalities to get the problems fixed, according to Schwartz.
“I think that when you have a municipal treatment plant that doesn’t have problems with overflow – that is working as it’s supposed to – the waste is getting better treatment at a treatment plant [than with a Type 1a MSD],” states Schwartz. Treatment plants are removing elements such as nutrients and metals that marine sanitation devices aren’t addressing, she adds.
In addition, many of those who oppose the Saxton Bill, such as Dometic, argue that the waste treatment involved in use of a Type 1a MSD does not do enough to disinfect the waste and actually introduces chlorine into the water, which is potentially harmful. Supporters counter that the chlorine is not harmful and that the treatment is, in fact, very effective, killing 78 to 94 percent of Hepatitis A virus in one study.
However, regardless of the merits of either argument, the EPA ultimately will decide whether the devices are effective enough.
Data on the way
Though there isn’t much data available now, there are some studies currently being conducted that should shed some light on the situation.
For one, SOBA (States Organization for Boat Access) has hired UL Laboratories to conduct environmental and lifecycle testing on 13 different pumpout models from seven manufacturers.
“During the national conferences, state representatives [said they] were experiencing maintenance problems and longevity problems with some of the equipment out there,” says Kevin Atkinson, former SOBA treasurer and manager of the SOBA Pumpout Equipment Standards and Lifecycle Testing Project. “We approached the National Fish and Wildlife Service for funding to conduct these lifecycle tests.”
As part of the grant agreement, the results will be distributed to all of the federal aid coordinators, manufacturers participating in the study and state representatives, he explains.
“We’re hoping that this will help … provide future improvements to existing equipment, if problems are identified,” he added.
Atkinson says the industry as a whole has been supportive of the testing. For example, some manufacturers backed the grant application through their own letters of support.
As of early July, the equipment had been purchased and was being assembled with the testing apparatus in the lab. During the actual testing, the pumpouts will be hooked up to a large tank system and run for the equivalent of about 1,000 hours, says Atkinson, during which time technicians will be checking the flow rates of the equipment, and monitoring any maintenance or clogging problems.
Atkinson also says different components of the equipment, such as exposed cabinetry, switches and gauges, will be subject to UV and salt spray. SOBA hopes to have testing completed by November.
The EPA is currently going through the process to get approval to conduct studies about the efficacy of No Discharge Zones. As part of the process, it has asked for public comment on NDZs and as of July was submitting the results of the request to the Office of Management and Budget, says Schwartz. This office will review the results and approve or deny the request to conduct surveys.
The surveys were expected to be conducted by a contractor in August or September in hopes of catching boaters, marina operators and states representatives at the end of the season, when they still have a fresh memory of their experience over the summer, says Schwartz. The EPA hopes to have the analysis of the survey results finished by early next year.
The data could lead the EPA to agree with Mr. Saxton that legislative changes are needed, she explains, or it could conclude that the current system works fine. A third option is to pursue regulatory changes, she adds.
Any changes, whether legislative or regulatory, would take years to be finalized, she explained.
A new regulation can easily take three to five years to complete, she says. If new data needs to be acquired, that could extend the time period even further.
For example, if the EPA were to change current waste treatment standards within three miles of shore, it would probably not only make the current standards more stringent, it would add new criteria such as nutrients and metals.
Before it set new standards, it would have to first decide whether the current technology would make enough of a difference, according to Schwartz.
To do this, it would need to obtain technical information from the manufacturers and the labs that currently certify MSDs for the Coast Guard. If there wasn’t data available on some materials in the treated discharge, such as the amount of nutrients and metals, the EPA then would have to require further testing of the devices, which would add to the time.
If legislation, such as the Saxton Bill, was passed, it would require EPA to do rulemaking. The Saxton Bill gives EPA a year to do so, but Schwartz says that is faster than the agency could probably get it done.
Will it ever pass?
Meanwhile, the passage of the Saxton Bill now or in the future remains in doubt.
Sciulla says that while BoatU.S. would like the bill to move quicker, “legislation is like good wine, it takes time.
“We’re getting our ducks in order, and they need to be in order for legislation to move.”
Another reason the bill is taking longer than normal, according to Sciulla, is that marine sanitation isn’t an issue that the average recreational boaters is going to jump up and down about.
BoatU.S. is, however, comforted by the words of the U.S. president in his 2003 State of the Union Address. He said that “the greatest environmental progress will come about not through endless lawsuits or command and control regulations, but through technology and innovation,” according to Sciulla.
He says that he believes there is a solution to the problem, whether it is HR 1027 or not.
“We’re trying every avenue that we can to bring marine sanitation device technology into the 21st century,”
Will the bill make a difference?
Even if the bill does pass, however, it may not make much of a difference. Like the current legislation, it would be difficult to enforce.
In addition, the overwhelming majority of cruising vessels manufactured now are fitted with holding tanks rather than onboard treatment devices.
Because the bill wouldn’t require the use of onboard treatment, and onboard treatment systems are more expensive than holding tanks, that isn’t likely to change.
Shinn of Raritan’s Shinn says that 5 percent or less of boats with toilets currently use Type 1 MSDs, and she doesn’t expect that number to grow.
“Boat builders still won’t go to the expense,” she says, adding that without enforcement, most boaters won’t have enough of an incentive to pay for an onboard treatment system. “Why would anyone spend $1,000 if they don’t think they will get caught?”
At the same time, Shinn says the increase in No Discharge Zones has hurt Raritan’s sales only slightly.
“People continue to buy them because they know others are dumping their holding tanks,” she explains “and they figure they are better off dumping treated sewage than untreated sewage.”
SeaLand President Presents Environmental Awards
At the sixth annual National Clean Boating Campaign Celebration, June 21, at Boston Yacht Haven, Boston, Mass., Ed McKiernan (left), president of SeaLand, a division of Dometic Corp., presented three "First Watch" Clean Water Awards.
Receiving the awards were (second from left to right) Joseph Migliore, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Office of Water Resources; George Bassett, Jr., marina manager, Nantucket Boat Basin, Nantucket, Mass.; and Andre Boudreau, pump-out operator, Harbors Dept., Block Island, R.I.
"The recipients of this award exemplify that individuals, whether in roles with private or municipal marinas or with state regulation, can make a difference and work together to keep boating waters clean for everyone to enjoy," said McKiernan, whose company manufactures holding tanks.
George Bassett, Jr. has managed Nantucket Boat Basin on Nantucket Island for the last 18 years, during which he has provided pumpout facilities for his customers, explained McKiernan in a speech at the event. Last year, Basset’s marina pumpout program removed over 85,000 gallons of sewage. Considering that boat sewage is highly concentrated, this volume is roughly the equivalent of nearly a million gallons of residential sewage, according to McKiernan.
"I asked George what caused him to be so highly committed to an effective pumpout program in his marina," said McKiernan. "He said that was easy to answer. When he first arrived in Nantucket, he rented a house on the harbor. His children couldn’t swim off the beach in their own front yard. Today, 18 years later, Nantucket Harbor is a federally recognized no discharge zone with a thriving scallop business in the same harbor."
Andre Boudreaux became involved with the free pumpout program on the Great Salt Pond in 1995, just three years after the program began, and now runs one of three pumpout boats on the Great Salt Pond. Last year, his community celebrated the tenth year that shellfish beds in the Great Salt Pond have been open to clamming. There is even a commercial clam growing operation in the same harbor. In 2002, Andre and his teammates, pumped out over 4,700 boats, removing over 106,000 gallons (again, the equivalent of well over 1,000,000 gallons of residential sewage).
"I asked Andre what was the most important factor in the success of his program," said McKiernan. "And he answered ‘enthusiasm, and every once in awhile I wear a clam suit.’"
Joe Migliore manages the shellfish program for the State of Rhode Island, Office of Water Resources and is also an avid boater. Rhode Island was the first state on the east coast to declare all of its waters a no discharge zone. Migliore was the point person dealing with this issue for the state.
"I asked him what his motivation was for going to a complete prohibition of sewage discharge," said McKiernan. "His answer was straight to the point, ‘I was between the proverbial rock and hard place. We couldn’t allow further expansion of boats and marinas and meet the needs of the Rhode Island shellfishing industry. The no discharge zone allows both industries to coexist on the same waterways.’"