Washington’s Department of Ecology is considering the introduction of a “no-discharge zone” that would prohibit all boats from pumping sewage overboard in Puget Sound, regardless of whether it is treated or not.
Current federal law prohibits pumping untreated sewage overboard in Puget Sound and within three miles offshore. But boats with toilets that use maceration and disinfectants to treat sewage — classified by the U.S. Coast Guard as Type 1 and Type II Marine Sanitation Devices (MSDs) — can legally dump treated sewage overboard anywhere in Puget Sound.
Ecology officials say the regulations aren’t doing enough to protect state waters, and that most marine toilets don’t adequately treat sewage to render it harmless to marine life in Puget Sound.
“Our concern is that those marine sanitation devices are not doing enough,” said Amy Jankowiak, compliance specialist for the water quality program at Ecology’s Northwest regional office.
“They were designed back in the ’70s to meet federal standards, and those standards are a lot less stringent than our state water quality standards.”
Marine toilets typically only grind up and disinfect waste but lack the ability to effectively treat potentially harmful solids, toxics and nutrients, according to Ecology. An EPA study found that fecal bacteria levels in approved MSDs can be several thousand times higher than Coast Guard standards, and unsafe levels have been measured at many Puget Sound beaches, Ecology says.
The bacteria has negatively impacted shellfish harvesting — last year alone, more than 19,000 acres of commercial shellfish beds were restricted or closed over fecal contamination.
Ecology’s proposal would likely impact only a relatively small number of recreational boats. An Ecology study released last year estimated that 54 percent of recreational vessels in Washington larger than 26 feet likely have Type I or Type II marine sanitation devices installed.
But the report also notes that Type II devices are typically found on large passenger vessels, cruise ships, freighters, commercial vessels and tugboats — not the type of recreational boats commonly seen on Puget Sound. Around 90 percent of boats sold in the state annually are under 26 feet — many of them too small to contain toilets — and many larger recreational boats tend to have marine sanitation systems that use holding tanks.
Eighty-two no-discharge zones have been established in 26 states since the 1970s, most of them on the East Coast, but there are currently none in Washington. If Ecology wants to establish one in Puget Sound, it would have to petition the EPA to do so.
Jankowiak said Ecology is currently gathering data about the availability of pumpout facilities, their usage and other factors, and seeking feedback from boaters and other stakeholders before deciding whether to proceed with the proposal, which could apply to all or just a portion of Puget Sound.
“We haven’t made any decisions about whether we will do this at all, or in what location,” she said.
The Washington Boating Alliance has expressed concerns that there hasn’t been sufficient public feedback into the proposal, and questions the link between boaters and pollution of shellfish beds.
WBA member Peter Schrappen said while the association isn’t opposed to the idea of a no-discharge zone for Puget Sound, it is not convinced that the proposal is warranted. Pumping untreated sewage overboard is already illegal, he said, and most boats that have toilets contain holding tanks that are pumped out.
“We think boaters are environmentalists who do the right things already,” he said.
“To add one more regulation into boating is not something that we like to see. We just haven’t been too impressed by the case made by Ecology that this is a necessary change.”
Additional information about the no-discharge zone can be found here. Ecology is accepting comments about the proposal until March 30. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Department of Ecology, Northwest Regional Office, Attn. Amy Jankowiak, 3190 160th Ave. SE., Bellevue, WA, 98008.