EPA considers no discharge zone; seeks public opinion

File photo by Susan Safford

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a proposal to designate coastal waters south of Cape Cod, including waters around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, as a No Discharge Area. A decision will be made in early June.

If approved, discharge of treated and untreated boat sewage would be prohibited within the town boundaries of Aquinnah, Chilmark, West Tisbury, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, Gosnold, Falmouth, Mashpee, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Chatham, and Nantucket, which encompasses 733 square miles of state water.

The EPA seeks public comment regarding the request through the end of the month.

Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs (MEAA) Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. submitted the application to the federal agency asking for this designation in early March.

“Our coastal waters are a precious natural resource and each season we get closer to our goal of protecting all of our coastal waters from boat pollution,” Secretary Sullivan said in a press release. “This designation would keep our marine habitats clean for wildlife and recreation like boating and swimming while protecting this significant commercial fishing and tourism economic resource.”

No Discharge Areas protect water quality and aquatic life from pathogens, nutrients and chemical products contained in discharged sewage and also reduce the risk of human illness, making it safer to swim, boat, fish and eat shellfish from protected waters, according to Mr. Sullivan. No Discharge Areas can also help reduce the growth of harmful algae that occurs due to high nutrient levels in sewage discharge and protect commercial clam fishing flats.

Under the Clean Water Act, a body of water can be designated as an No Discharge Area if local, state, and federal authorities determine it is ecologically and recreationally important enough to merit protection above and beyond that provided by existing state and federal laws.

Commercial operators, including the Steamship Authority, use on-vessel marine sanitation systems before discharge in designated zones specifically designed for Island ferry operators.

On May 15, at the SSA’s monthly meeting, the Authority announced they awarded a contract worth $1,893,000 to Robert B. Our, Inc. of Harwich to build sewage pump-out facilities in Hyannis, Nantucket, Woods Hole, and Vineyard Haven. The new facilities will comply with the EPA’s standards for No Discharge Areas.

The SSA received a $1,270,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Boat Discretionary Program to help pay for the project. Construction will begin in the fall and is expected to be completed by the spring of 2013.

If the South Cape Cod and Islands area is approved, more than 95 percent of Massachusetts waters will be protected from discharge of boat sewage.

Before the EPA will support designate a No Discharge Area, the MEEA must show that there are enough “pumpout” facilities, which would allow boaters to have their sewage holding tanks pumped out.

Currently, there are 29 pumpout facilities available to all boaters.

In the area surrounding the Island, the EPA estimates there are 15,283 boats, of which 5,075 have a head (toilet) on board.

The area includes 143 bathing beaches covering 26 miles of coastline. In addition to roughly 15,000 resident vessels, an estimated 700 to 800 visiting recreational boats regularly travel these waters during the summer, EEA said.

“Protecting coastal water quality and our local environment is just good common sense. This step helps protect the foundation of a vibrant local economy and healthy communities,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office in a press release. “Especially in these areas where visitors spend their time and vacation budgets, and where active shellfisheries bolster local incomes, EPA applauds these communities for taking an important step to protect the environment.”

Any who wish to comment of the request can contact Ann Rodney of the EPA at 617-918-1538, or by email at rodney.ann@epa.gov. Comments will be considered until May 29.