What is the most responsible way to effectively deal with sewage generated from commercial and yacht traffic? Since the Clean Water Act was introduced in 1972, it has been illegal to dump raw sewage into the oceans. Yet many vessel operators flout the law, stating that shore-side pump-outs are inadequate or non-existent. However, some operators, either out of fear of being caught or a genuine environmental conscience, use holding tanks or employ a shipboard treatment system like a marine sanitation device (MSD).
Several state and local governments around the U.S. have implemented “no-discharge” areas, however, which effectively prohibit the use of MSDs since they still technically discharge material into the water. Opponents of no-discharge laws complain that vessel owners have been singled out as easy targets since shoreside treatment facilities, which would receive vessel sewage, often discharge raw sewage into the ocean in periods of heavy rain. This can ultimately lead to fishing prohibitions, fouled drinking water, and beach closures, as occurred in Key West in 1999.
In fact, the most recent no-discharge law was recently passed by the city of Key West in response to the beach closures. The law coincided with an upgrade of the city’s decrepit sewer treatment system, which allowed raw sewage to flow untreated into the ocean, particularly during heavy rainfall.
The city was inspired to update its facility to a deep-injection well, which should benefit the area’s coral reefs by reducing algal blooms and bacteria. While this type of well does not treat sewage nearly enough to afford clear water required by coral, city managers and local activists laud the new system as a big step toward cleaner water. The City of Key West, as host of the largest fleet of charter boats in the world, has also stepped up efforts to enforce the law as it pertains to yacht and commercial vessel traffic. Vessel crews entering the port will soon be greeted by a large sign branded with a new slogan: “Pump it. Don’t dump it!” The no-discharge rule applies to waters that extend 600 feet from shore.
“This is a big victory for the Key West environment,” said DeeVon Quirolo, director of Reed Relief, an environmental action group in Key West. She said that the city considered allowing MSDs to be used in Key West, but concluded that treated discharge adds to the problem that corals face, namely, nutrient-rich water. Critics further argue, however, that not only is MSD discharge insignificant, vessel operators will likely dump their tanks prior to entering port, like Key West harbor, rather than make the extra effort to install a treatment system that may make sense environmentally. “For every 500 flushes of a marine head that goes through Lectra/San [a type I MSD], the equivalent of a pound and a half of sand enters the water,” said Kim Shin of Raritan Engineering, a manufacturer of MSDs based in Millville, N.J.
Fifteen states in the U.S. have officially designated no-discharge zones in effect in at least part of adjacent coastlines on lakes, rivers, and oceans.
“The notion of a no-discharge area is politically appealing, but it’s not very effective, as we learned from Rhode Island, which has been considered a no-discharge area since August 1998 but has seen no enforcement, and there are not nearly enough pump-outs,” said Dale Weatherspoon of Raritan’s Fort Lauderdale office. “These types of laws do nothing but inhibit technology and innovative approaches to handling sewage.”