Editorial December 1, 1998 Issue

RI’s No-Discharge Controversy

This isn’t an item you’ve likely read about in your local newspaper, but here in Rhode Island, the EPA’s designation of all Rhode Island waters as a no-discharge zone (NDZ) has caused more than a ripple.

The move has been in the works for more than five years, over which time $40 million from Wallop-Breaux fish restoration funds have been made available through federal Fish and Wildlife Service for states to install pump-out stations. According to an utterly simplistic formula, once there are a sufficient number of pump-out stations to handle the number of registered boats in a given geographical area, the state can apply for, and EPA may grant, no-discharge status. In 1998, it happened in Rhode Island.

Never mind that dumping untreated sewage within the 3-mile limit has been against the law for 26 years. What no-discharge status essentially does is to outlaw the use of Type I and II MSD’s (marine sanitation devices) that in one manner or another kill bacteria and macerate waste prior to overboard discharge. The best known of these is the Lectra/San, marketed by Raritan Engineering.

An article in the May 1998 issue of Cruising World magazine castigated the EPA and the states for ignoring the efficacy of Type I and II MSD’s. “The public is led to believe that NDZs outlaw raw-waste discharge, when in fact this is already illegal, and the effect of NDZs is to outlaw use of onboard treatment systems,” wrote author Tom Neale. “Those who question this solution are condemned as ‘environmentally incorrect.’”

Those on both sides of the issue are well entrenched.

Type I and II proponents say the devices have been around for 20 years, are simple to operate and effective.

Opponents say most boat owners don’t have Type I or II MSD’s installed, consider pump-out stations a hassle, and so just discharge overboard anyway.

Proponents say there still aren’t enough pump-out stations and many of those that are operational are leaky and poorly maintained. Further, they cite the fact that waste from pump-outs is taken to city waste treatment plants where all too often “accidents” occur or heavy rainfall overwhelms the plant, sending raw sewage into the bay in much worse form than if it had been treated by a MSD.

Proponents also note that coliform washed into the bay by rainfall far exceed any inadvertent dumping from boats, and that a single major treatment plant spill (which happens in Rhode Island all too frequently), can dump millions of gallons of sewage into the water. It happened in Narragansett Bay last summer, closing shellfish beds and beaches.

Opponents say, well, yeah, that’s true, but we all have to do our part.

Where do we stand?

First, we grew up sailing on Lake Michigan where holding tanks were mandatory and Y-valves illegal. But state facilities for pump-out were plentiful and first class. Holding tanks and pump-outs were simply facts of life and accepted as such. Therefore, we do not consider pumping out a big deal, so long as facilities are available.

Second, we, like most sailors and their kids, like to swim when the boat is at anchor. A turd in the water is repugnant as well as unhealthy.

Third, we see no reason why Type I and II MSD’s should be made illegal. Due to their size and electrical current draw, however, it is illogical to expect small boats to have one installed.

Fourth, no-discharge status should be limited to areas where the waters are not well flushed by the tides, or where many boats congregate.

Lastly, if you don’t have a Type I or II MSD, use a holding tank and pump-out. Holding tanks should be mandatory on all boats regardless of toilet type, as they should be used in crowded anchorages and may serve as a back-up to a failed MSD.

What do you think?

—Dan Spurr

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