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?
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.
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.)
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.
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."
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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