Tisbury ponders solutions for increased boat pump-out demand

One of Tisbury's two pump-out boats services vessels at Lake Tashmoo. — Photo by Janet Hefler

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated state waters south of Cape Cod and surrounding Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket as the Southern Cape Cod No Discharge Area (NDA) on June 29. The designation is significant for boaters because it triggered new regulations which prohibit the discharge of any treated or untreated sewage from all vessels in the 807-square-mile area.

In anticipation of the impact of those regulations, Tisbury town officials, harbor management committee members, and marina owners are in debate about how to handle any increase in demand and expense for the town’s pump-out service for boat septage.

Until 2016, the state will allow Steamship Authority (SSA) ferries and other vessels to discharge in two exempted zones, one between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard, and one on the approach to Barnstable. By that time the SSA plans to convert its saltwater waste systems over to freshwater systems and have onshore vessel pump-out facilities installed and connected to the municipal sewer systems in Vineyard Haven, Barnstable, Falmouth, and Nantucket. SSA vessels currently use on-board marine sanitation devices that operate on saltwater and remove most of the bacteria but not nitrogen from wastewater.

NDAs stemmed from the Clean Vessel Act (CVA) of 1992, passed by Congress to help reduce pollution from vessel sewage discharges. The Act provided states with the opportunity to apply for funds for the construction, renovation, operation, and maintenance of boat pump-out and waste reception facilities at both public and private marinas.

The Massachusetts CVA program operates under a grant administered by the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) since 1994. It provides a 75 percent match in Federal funds to a town’s 25 percent cash or in-kind contribution.

The cost of free pump-outs

Tisbury has applied for and received funds to offer a free sewage pump-out service for boats in Vineyard Haven harbor, Lake Tashmoo, and Lagoon Pond since 1995, according to Jay Wilbur, the town’s harbor master. Over the past few months, Tisbury’s Harbor Management Committee (HMC) and Tashmoo Management Committee (TMC) have been in discussion about how the new NDA in Vineyard waters might impact the town pump-out program’s future. The town has two pump-out boats, one used mostly in Lake Tashmoo and the other in Vineyard Haven Harbor and Lagoon Pond. The boats empty wastewater at a shore-side pump-out station on a dock owned by Ralph Packer at his property on Beach Road. The facility has a holding tank, which is subsequently pumped into the town’s sewer system.

Tisbury’s pump-out facility is one of 29 available to service vessels in the Southern Cape Cod NDA. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs have both pump-out boats and shore-side facilities. Chilmark has a shore-side boat pump-out facility.

At a meeting on July 10, the Tisbury selectmen reviewed a joint memo from the TMC and HMC that gave an analysis of the pump-out program and options and recommendations to improve it.

The total annual cost for the program since 2007 has ranged from a low of $31,030 in 2010 to a high of $58,705 in 2011, according to the memo. Gallons pumped per year since 2007 ranged from a low of 7,699 in 2008 to a high of 17,280 in 2011, resulting in septage treatment costs at 15 cents per gallon ranging from $1,100 to $3,500.

Although local marine businesses and facilities contributed some in-kind services and financial contributions in the past, the committees’ memo said those vary from year to year and from business to business, because there is no formal arrangement with the town.

Mr. Wilbur said that although the amount of the town’s CVA grant funds has not really changed over the years, Tisbury has had to pay very little towards the pump-out program. “When we finally got to start using the sewer system, we finally had nearly enough money to run the pump-out program,” he said. “Every year when I run out of money, I take money out of the harbor department’s operating budget. I have managed to squeak by with in-kind contributions from the town, for mechanic’s services, dockage and storage. A lot of towns flat out appropriate 25 percent of their program’s cost.”

One of the options the harbor management committees considered was for the town to discontinue use of the state grant and charge a fee to boaters for pump-outs. Using last year’s figures as a guide, the memo said boaters would be charged $3.30 a gallon for a pump-out.

However, both the committees and Mr. Wilbur agree that if the town starts charging a fee, boaters might quit using the service, which could lead to illegal dumping. “It would just add a hassle and discourage people from using it, although up until now, they weren’t legally required to get their tanks pumped,” he said. “If we did charge a fee, we couldn’t charge enough. It’s not a viable alternative.”

Mr. Wilbur also said that every penny charged would have to be deducted from the funds granted by the State. As for the idea of not applying for state grant funds, he had two words: “No way.”

Commercial marinas in the mix

Among the other options for providing additional pump-out service, the committees suggested that commercial marinas purchase their own pump-out boats or add facilities at their docks for hook-up to the town sewer system. The committees also suggested adding town-owned pump-out facilities at Owen Park and the Lagoon Pond and Lake Street boat ramps. Or, if the SSA is agreeable and the project is feasible, the town would install an alternate system for its pump-out boats only at a new pump-out facility the SSA plans to build in Vineyard Haven.

In discussion with the selectmen, Mr. Wilbur said that he thinks commercial marinas that are already hooked up to the town’s wastewater collection system should step up to the plate.

“What the harbor needs is for everyone that accommodates boats to accommodate their boats’ effluent,” Mr. Wilbur told The Times in a recent phone conversation. “Everybody wants it to be somebody else’s problem.”

He argues that the marine businesses could invest in upgrades for infrastructure, utilizing money from CVA state grants, to provide land-based pump-out services for their clients and also the public.

“It’s not fair for the effluent from giant yachts at Vineyard Haven Marina, for example, to be carried across the harbor to Ralph Packer’s dock and pumped out there, when there’s a land connection at the marina that could be made from the yacht to town sewer,” Mr. Wilbur said. “They could run a pipe from the dock right to the sewer.”

Mr. Wilbur said he gave information about the CVA grant program to Vineyard Haven Marina, Coastwise Packet Company, Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, and Maciel Marine and suggested they apply soon, since funds are still available.

“Maciel Marine and Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard did apply for grants, but the Shipyard’s installation required too much money and there were some complications, and so they didn’t do it,” Mr. Wilbur said. “Maciel Marine did acquire a trailer pump-out rig, which was not what I wanted them to do, but at least they stepped up. I was looking for more of an alternative than them being able to pump one of their boats out once a week, in the event something happens to Packer’s.”

Since MV Shipyard does not have overnight slips, owner Phil Hale said his business does not use the pump-out service very often, other than in the fall for some customers who fail to make arrangements to get their boats pumped out before winter storage.

“We applied for a grant a couple of years ago, and found out that it would cover a fraction of the cost to install a pump-out facility here so we declined to do it,” Mr. Hale said in a recent phone conversation with The Times.

Coastwise Packet Company manager Morgan Douglas also cited cost as an issue. “Oh, sure, people will tell you that there are grants and money available to help, but it’s a massive project to put in an underground pump on a property that shares a restaurant, bakery and retail operation,” he said.

“I think it’s a terrible burden to put on a small business,” Mr. Douglas added. “When you look at the percentage of boats on town moorings in the outer harbor, the amount of wastewater that is going to be pumped from those customers is going to be a lot more than ours, since most of our customers use our shore-side facilities.”

At Vineyard Haven Marina, General manager Liz Wild said site constraints are the issue. “We don’t have a place to put a holding tank,” she said. “When we put a sewer system in here, it took up all the space we had.”

Tisbury department of public works director Fred LaPiana estimated it would cost between $12,000 and $15,000 to install a pump-out facility. Although the marinas and shipyard are hooked up to town sewer, Mr. LaPiana said adding a pump-out facility would involve more than just running a pipe to the main sewer line and the property owners would bear the infrastructure expense.

Each location should have a holding tank, similar to the set-up at Mr. Packer’s dock, so that boat septage could be tested and its release into the town’s wastewater system controlled, Mr. LaPiana said. Otherwise, an influx of salt water that enters the wastewater plant could be harmful to microbes necessary to the treatment process.

“We don’t know what’s coming off private boats,” Mr. LaPiana said. “It usually a mix of salt and fresh water, with chemicals added. If we’re going to accept it for treatment at the town plant, which so far we do in small quantities at Mr. Packer’s place, we need to be able to monitor what goes in there occasionally to make sure we don’t spike the plant.”

Sharing the SSA facility?

The effects of salt water on sewage treatment plants was the major factor in the SSA’s decision to convert to freshwater sanitation systems aboard its vessels. At the SSA’s new pump-out facility at the Vineyard Haven dock, septage will be pumped into one of two underground storage tanks installed for the SSA office building, Mr. LaPiana said. At the end of the day, when wastewater volume is less at the town treatment plant, the holding tank will be emptied into a primary wastewater pumping station off the Water Street parking lot.

The second storage tank, which is currently unused, could be connected to an alternate system for the town’s pump-out boats, Mr. LaPiana said. However, it would require a different vacuum system because the SSA’s would be too powerful for the pump-out boats.

“The question for the Steamship Authority and us is, should we have them put in a pipe to some place where the town pump-out boats can pull up to around the SSA dock so we can accept the wastewater there,” Mr. LaPiana said.

As for installing a pump-out facility at the Owen Park dock, Mr. Wilbur said one of the biggest negatives is that a truck would have to haul the septage, since the property has no access to the town sewer system.

“This place is already so busy with children, parking, bathrooms, and if you add a big truck to that mix, it would be an issue,” Mr. Wilbur said. “This is meant to be a park. However, I believe we should have one here, just like everybody else that gets boaters should have one.”

At a meeting on July 24, the Tisbury selectmen agreed to set a meeting with SSA general manager Wayne Lamson, Vineyard SSA member Marc Hanover, and harbor management committee members to discuss the feasibility of joint use of the SSA’s new facility. The selectmen are also in the process of soliciting proposals from wastewater consultants to review the pump-out program options and make recommendations.