Operators fear cost implications of Puget Sound no discharge zone

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has given its blessing for Washington state to designate Puget Sound a no discharge zone (NDZ), a move that would cost boat owners thousands for retrofits and has spurred at least one to consider taking his vessels out of the state.

Tugboats, commercial fishing boats, small commercial passenger vessels and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research and survey vessels would have five years to comply, Washington said.

The state conceded in its petition to EPA that additional pump out infrastructure would be helpful. It also built in the delay because of some unique retrofitting challenges, “such as requiring engineered designs with extra safety considerations and in some cases, significant costs.”

How significant? For the eight passenger vessels affected, installing a holding tank in lieu of a Coast Guard approved marine sanitation device would require a vessel remodel or replacement costing at least $650,000. Tugboat bills would range “from negligible to $161,000 per vessel with about 100 of the 150 Puget Sound” vessels needing a retrofit, the state said.

“The sound-wide NDZ will effectively shut down our operations in Puget Sound,” said Capt. Dan Blanchard, owner of UnCruise Adventures, a small ship cruise line whose itineraries include Alaska, Hawaii, coastal Washington and the Columbia and Snake Rivers. “There are only two commercial pump out stations, and they are far away from where we operate and are physically too small to fit our vessels, meaning there are no commercial pump out stations for us. We will move our underway vessel operations out of Seattle and Washington state.

“Due to tonnage and stability regulations we will not be able to build tanks large enough to store the amount of effluent that we create in a week’s time, it’s simply not possible from a physical standpoint. Like the rest of the NDZ process, the state grossly underestimates the cost of building such tanks in our vessels and ignored us when we shared with them the regulations on tonnage and stability that leave our hands tied.”

Blanchard said he will “continue to invest in modifications and installations of new state of the art federally approved marine sanitation devices, but alas these will be outlawed in the state of Washington.”

Tugboat owners are concerned, too.

“There are a few places for yachts to pump out, but there’s no commercial spot,” said Bob Shrewsbury, co-owner of Western Towboat Co., Seattle. “Not a lot of people are set up to deal with this.”

While all the new boats they’ve built in the last 15 years have fair size holding tanks, the new regulation could affect the older boats in Western’s fleet of 22.

The EPA said in a federal register notice that it has determined that adequate facilities for removal and treatment of sewage from vessels are “reasonably available” in Puget Sound. In response to comments that EPA’s action was regulatory overkill, the agency earlier said the federal Clean Water Act provides that a complete prohibition on vessel sewage discharges is OK “where the stated conditions are met.”

To comments on the cost of retrofitting and the stability challenge, EPA said it wasn’t required to consider any of those issues or the cost of using pump out stations.

The state Department of Ecology has not decided when its official rulemaking will begin, a spokesman said.

Read the EPA’s full decision and its response to comments.

About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.


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    The State of Washington has completely misrepresented, if not outright lied about, the pumpout capacity available to commercial vessels in the NDZ petition. Any coherent review of the facts shows that the State did not follow the law. Not even the former EPA Administrator for Region 10 was willing to violate the law and approve the NDZ. But then the new Acting EPA Administrator blindly signs off on it. The State’s own consultants had to model a tugboat’s effluent discharge with a crew of 8 billion people to achieve any sort of environmental effect from the treated discharges from commercial vessels. The recent overflows from the municipal sewer plants on Puget Sound dumped more raw sewage into Puget Sound in just a few days than the treated effluent the commercial boat industry will discharge in a year. The industry supported a targeted NDZ proposal that would protect the areas in Puget Sound that the State said were most at risk, without imposing these costs on the industry. As usual, the State-funded study used fuzzy science and wild exaggerations of vessel operating parameters to achieve the desired result, not a fair assessment of where the problem really lies.

    Never mind the Canadian communities rimming the San Juan Islands which dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Sound every year. Or the thousands of waterfront homes on the Sound with non-existent or failed septic systems discharging directly into the Sound. And the State will actually give these homeowners our tax money to repair them.

    The Clean Water Act requirements for NDZ’s are loose enough that the State should not be allowed to flaunt the law and get an NDZ approved without meeting the requirements of the law. The Department of Ecology should be working to follow the law as it applies to all citizens, and not ignoring the law to appease the paid environmental consultants constantly whining on their doorstep.

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    It’s clear that if the State mandates this then the State should be required to put in adequate commercial pump out stations within easy access to Puget Sound.
    And the Mumicipality responsible for the Mass raw sewage dump into the sound should be fined and held responsible for it not to happen again. Which it happens about every other year.
    I live on an Island and I am mandated to have my Septic system inspected every year.
    The State needs to inspect itself and make a rule NDZ obtainable by ALL.

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