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Dumping on Sailors

Many sailors, including the author, use their time on the water as a means of escaping the trappings of life ashore, but it seems that this the passive approach has begun to lose its effectiveness.
I find myself in the awkward position of feeling compelled to write about politics. It is awkward for me because I hold our political system in such low esteem that I consider a good result from political action to be almost entirely a function of statistical probability—like flipping a coin. Over the long term, heads will come up 50 percent of the time. The same rule, I am sorry to say, seems to apply to the actions of politicians. I vote, but I hold out little hope that “my” candidate will put doing the right thing above getting reelected.

Such skepticism makes it easy to blame bad legislation on politicians that are either corrupt or brain-dead, but sometimes, as the cartoon character Pogo famously opined, “the enemy is us.” This is the case with marine toilet regulations.

Nearly 25 years ago we sailors generally turned a blind eye while laws passed that required that we either hold or treat our onboard waste. In some circumstances this requirement is clearly justified and every right-thinking sailor should want to comply. However, in waters that are subject to the daily, unrestricted flush of tides, there was not then and still is not today a scintilla of scientific evidence that overboard discharge has any kind of impact on water quality.

I can hear some of you saying, “of course it has an impact. How can it not?” Before you lump me in with cigarette industry executives denying knowledge that nicotine is addictive, consider this. We are not sailing in a swimming pool. Down there under the boat are plants and animals by the billions. The more sea life we observe, the healthier we consider the water to be. But how can that be? Doesn't a higher concentration of life also mean a higher concentration of waste, which “logically” degrades water quality? We sailors can help ourselves by getting over the notion that excrement is a pollutant. Farmers and gardeners know better.

Perhaps you think we shouldn't draw any conclusions about the potential impact of human waste simply because the ocean processes all fish excrement without political or scientific intervention. Isn't human waste different because it is additional, or because it comes from a mammal?

With the increasing number of No Discharge Zones, boat owners must ensure that their on board waste systems comply with discharge requirements.
Whales are mammals too, more closely related to the elephant than to the mackerel. Did you know that a single blue whale digests as much as eight tons of food every day? The waste from just one of these great mammals—excreted directly into the ocean—exceeds the combined discharge from more than 5,000 sailors. If you subscribe to the excrement-is-a-pollutant school, then whaling is a good thing for the health of the world's oceans, offering far greater results than regulating the discharge of marine toilets. As a matter of fact, commercial whaling has, according to conservative scientific estimates, reduced the blue whale population by more than 200,000. The more reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that this decimation has left today's ocean with more than enough excess capacity to easily handle the waste of the occasional wandering sailor.

Few dispute the cleansing capacity of the deep ocean, and direct discharge remains perfectly legal at sea. It is only in US coastal waters where the discharge of raw sewage is illegal.  Speaking analogously, the rule is not “Don't pee in the pool.” It is “Don't pee in the shallow end of the pool.” In enclosed bodies of water, or anywhere that there is a high concentration of toilet-equipped boats, this prohibition should be a no-brainer. No one wants to do their boating in a septic tank. Unfortunately, more than 99 percent of the waters covered by this regulation are simply the edge of the ocean. Mariners have accepted this flawed regulation—mostly by ignoring it—but few have sought to fix it.

"Sailing is, by its very nature a disconnect kind of activity, and thus sailors are less likely to confront such issues. But it is this lack of opposition that is directly responsible for the increasing number of No-Discharge Zones."
It is this lack of opposition that is directly responsible for the increasing number of No-Discharge Zones. State politicians like NDZ legislation because it paints them as environmentalists without having to take on the real polluters, the ones with dollars to contribute to political opponents. The non-boating public likes NDZ legislation because they believe it bans the discharge of raw sewage. However, since it is already illegal to discharge raw sewage in territorial waters, the only real effect of a NDZ is to disallow the discharge of treated sewage. The irony here is that modern onboard Type I waste-treatment systems typically do a much better job than municipal water treatment plants. In any case, because fecal coliform bacteria die off rapidly in seawater, concentrations that might represent a health risk are virtually non-existent except around high-volume sources like a sewer outfall or the all-to-common pumping station spill. That makes the effect of forcing boat-originating effluent into the municipal sewer system the exact the opposite of what NDZ supporters expect.

Not only that, but the use of holding tanks on boats is a bad idea except when absolutely necessary. Carrying and transferring concentrations of waste represent a clear and present health hazard to those on the boat, and disposing of raw sewage one flush at a time is demonstrably better for the environment than pumping out 25 gallons of putrefying waste. A Type I treatment system is an even more ecologically responsible solution, and today's Type I MSDs discharge 100 times less bacteria than the original Type I devices. However, if you are forced to have a holding tank anyway to sail in NDZ waters, few will have the space or be willing to incur the expense to install both systems aboard. That means overboard discharge that might otherwise be treated will now be raw. Here again, the true effect of the NDZ law turns out to be the opposite what supporters expect.

So despite my skepticism about political solutions, the only way to stop the proliferation of NDZs is legislation at the federal level that would prevent states from establishing NDZs without compelling evidence that recreational vessel discharge significantly contributes to whatever pollution problem the state is attempting to resolve. Under current law the state only needs to assert that the waters require greater protection. There are no factual requirements other than a determination that “adequate” pump-out facilities are available, and even that is merely a snapshot at the time of the NDZ application. (You need not look far to find pump-out stations out of service in existing NDZs.)

So many marinas, so few pumpout stations. What gives?
Right now, just such a bill is working its way through the House of Representatives, although I would venture to say that few representatives have yet heard of it. That is because even fewer sailors have voiced support. This bill (H.R. 3673) would allow the use of Type I MSDs in all territorial waters, including NDZs, unless the state can substantiate that such discharge is harmful. Its effect would be to eliminate most NDZs given that states will be unable to gather such evidence—because there isn't any.

Sailing is, by its very nature, a disconnect kind of activity. We go sailing in part to leave behind the annoyances of life ashore, so it is easier to simply comply with or ignore inane regulations than to actively oppose them. That is how freedoms are lost. So if you side with me on this issue, call or write your representative and tell him or her to support H.R. 3673. If you cannot bring yourself to that level of participation, at least get over the feeling that flushing a boat toilet is somehow an evil act. It is not. We sailors have been singled out for environmental regulation mostly because we are an easy target, made easier by our complacency. We need to change that.

Passing the Bill

The legislative action that Don Casey mentions above, H.R. 3673, "Recreational Waters Protection Act," was introduced by Rep. James Saxton, who is himself an active boater. This bill addresses the potential use of Type 1 MSDs (marine sanitation devices like Lectra-San) in No Discharge Zones. Saxton's intent, as near as we can ascertain, is to make life much more enjoyable for boaters by cleaning up coastal and tidal waters by requiring that any discharge in these areas be only by vessels equipped with Type 1 MSDs. Of course passage of this legislation would also have the effect of promoting Type 1 MSDs, which could mean a nice shot in the arm for the companies that manufacture these devices.

To see details of the bill, log on to: www.house.gov/transportation/water/05-01-02/05-01-02memo.html. If you are in favor of this bill passing, write to your local representative and urge them to support it.

Now, in case you're a little lost on the terminology, there are three types of MSDs:

A Type I MSD breaks up the sewage, disinfects it with chemicals, then discharges the treated sewage overboard. It is legal in most instances to discharge wastes from a Type I MSD directly overboard. You must add the appropriate chemicals for treatment. Without chemicals, the discharge from a Type I system is considered raw sewage an illegal discharge.

A Type II MSD is similar to a Type I MSD, but treats the sewage to a higher degree through maceration, biological decomposition and chemical additives. Type II MSDs are typically found on larger boats. It is legal in most instances to discharge waste from a Type II MSD directly overboard.

A Type III MSD is essentially a holding tank where untreated sewage is stored until it can be properly disposed of at a pumpout station. Adding chemical deodorizers does not constitute treatment and does not allow you to dump wastes overboard.

Eds. note: After publishing this article, we received several letters from SailNet users who strongly disagreed with Don Casey's outlook on the matter of overboard discharge. Because we recognize that this is a controversial issue, and that there are varying views on the matter, we've opted to amend the article and include one of those letters, published with permission of the author:

"Concerning Don Casey's article Dumping on Boaters, I can not support his position nor Sailnet's position for publishing such an uninformed and biased article. Sailors seem to be hung up on the worth of onboard sewage treatment systems. We insist that these devises should be allowed because they kill such a high percentage of bacteria. But, we are not listening to the scientific evidence that says that bacteria is only part of the problem. Marine sanitation treatment, the scientists say, is very good a treating and eliminating bacteria, but does a poor job of eliminating nutrients from the waste. Nutrients are what causes algal blooms leading to oxygen deprivation in water and biological die-offs.

"Mr. Casey's comparison of fish and marine mammal excrement to human excrement is comical and demonstrates his ignorance of the topic. The oceanic ecosystem evolved with marine biological waste as part of the ecosystem: large amounts of human excretion and effluent was never part of that evolution. As our coast lines become more and more populated by boaters and nonboaters alike, the littoral near-shore marine ecosystems are under attack from a host of assailants. Sailors are no doubt a minority player in this assault, but nonetheless, we are part of it. To exclude ourselves from the problem and demand proof that we are impacting it is irresponsible."

Eric Peterson

Suggested Reading:

Marine Sanitation Devices by Kathy Barron

The Foolproof Head by James Baldwin

Updating Your Head by Sue & Larry

SailNet Store Section: Holding Tanks

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