Feds asked to name Martha’s Vineyard waters a no discharge zone

— Photo by Tim Johnson

Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. submitted an application on Monday to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate state waters south of Cape Cod and surrounding Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard as the South Cape Cod and Islands No Discharge Area (NDA).

The designation would prohibit the discharge of any treated or untreated boat sewage in the area, which encompasses 807 square miles.

“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.”

At least for the immediate future, the state would allow commercial operators, including the Steamship Authority, to continue to use on-vessel marine sanitation systems before discharge in designated zones specifically designed for Island ferry operators. The zones would disappear in 2016.

Toilets and urinals aboard SSA ferries discharge to onboard marine sanitation devices (MSDs) that operate on saltwater. Wastewater goes into tanks and through the MSD to remove most of the bacteria. Nitrogen is not removed, however.

NDAs 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. NDAs 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.

The nominated area includes 143 bathing beaches covering over 26 miles of shoreline. 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.

Secretary Sullivan submitted the South Cape Cod and Islands NDA application through the state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), capping five years of extensive work by CZM and 14 communities to ensure the necessary waste pumpout facilities are available for boaters to use. The 14 communities are: Chilmark, West Tisbury, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, Gosnold, Falmouth, Mashpee, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Chatham and Nantucket.

“Massachusetts environmental leaders have been wise and forward-thinking by helping coastal communities to protect the health of their coastal waters,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England Office. “So much of our local economy is based on a clean and healthy coastal environment, which helps drive a vibrant tourist economy, healthy shellfishing beds and abundant habitat for wildlife. Establishing a No Discharge Area in the waters south of Cape Cod and surrounding Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard will help ensure these areas retain their beauty and charm and help protect one of the remaining portions of coastal water in Massachusetts.”

EEA noted that ferry operators have been working closely with state and local government and have made substantial progress retrofitting vessels, building shoreside pumpout infrastructure and ensuring adequate capacity and conditions so that boat waste can be processed by municipal wastewater treatment plants.

“I’d like to thank the 14 Cape and Island communities that worked with CZM, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the EPA to prepare for this nomination including installing the recreational and commercial pumpout facilities necessary to meet federal requirements,” Bruce Carlisle, CZM Director said. “I’d also like to thank the major commercial vessel operators, particularly the Steamship Authority, who are working diligently to retrofit their vessels and collaborate effectively with communities to ensure that they can comply with the discharge ban as soon as facilities for the ferries are available.”

In September 2009, the Steamship Authority asked permission from Tisbury to add pump-out facilities for its ferries berthed overnight at the Vineyard Haven terminal. The discharge would flow to the town’s sewer system.

The SSA plans to convert its saltwater waste systems over to freshwater systems, once onshore vessel pump-out facilities are installed and connected to the municipal sewer systems in Nantucket, Barnstable, Vineyard Haven, and Falmouth. The Oak Bluffs terminal does not require one because vessels do not berth there overnight.

In a letter to Tisbury DPW director Fred LaPiana in August 2009, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson estimated the SSA would pump out an average of 2,500 to 4,000 gallons of wastewater per day (gpd), at peak summer volumes. Sewage pumped from vessels berthed overnight would go into holding tanks at the terminal and then into the town sewer system.

On track

In a telephone conversation Monday, Mr. Lamson said the boatline is on track to have all its shoreside facilities in place by spring 2013. Once those are in place, the SSA would begin modifying its vessels, he said.

Mr. Lamson said vessel modifications would be completed based on the current vessel dry-docking schedule, which could take two to three years to complete.

Mr. Lamson said the SSA has been working with local, state and federal officials on the South Cape NDA designation for several years.

“We have completed the design and permitting for the vessel sewage pump-out facilities and we have received approvals from all of the local towns involved,” he said. “We applied for and recently received a $1,270,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Boat Discretionary Program to help with the cost of installing vessel sewage pump-out facilities at our terminals in Woods Hole, Vineyard Haven, Nantucket and Hyannis.”

Under the Clean Water Act, a body of water can be designated as an NDA 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. In Massachusetts, CZM works closely with communities and EPA to establish NDAs as part of a comprehensive regional water quality approach.

Once the South Cape Cod and Islands NDA is approved, over 95 percent of state waters will be protected from discharge of boat sewage.