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May 2001
The Failure of Rhode Island's Statewide No-Discharge Zone

Reprinted with permission. BoatUS is indebted to the editors of Cruising World for undertaking this in-depth investigation.

As the so-called Ocean State's pumpout-only law charts new waters, we follow its course down a rabbit hole --- and the only way out isn't pretty.

Frank Rawcliff on Warwick's HArbor Light MarinaStanding on the foredeck of Cruising World's 26-foot sloop, Another Opinion, I tried to radio the nearest pumpout station. Newport's brick-and-clapboard cityscape loomed behind me. Beside me teetered a portable toilet, begging to be emptied. On this, the third and final day of my ill-fated plunge into Rhode Island's No-Discharge Zone, I saw a nightmarish vision of the future: a day when the only legal way to sail the U.S. coast would be to cross my knees and hold it. I tried the radio once more. Static replied.

I was, truly, in deep doo-doo.

My goal had seemed simple enough: deliver a week's worth of excrement to Rhode Island. It is, after all, the only state to ban the use of onboard-treatment systems in all its waters, and thus the only coastal state required to have "adequate and reasonably available" pumpout stations to handle boater waste. For the two years since Rhode Island's experiment in coastal management had taken hold, we'd heard from many cruisers that it simply wasn't working. So, while the final days of summer slipped away, photographer Billy Black and I set out to test the state's pumpout-only policy.

Into Murky Waters

In September 1997, Governor Lincoln C. Almond announced that Rhode Island would become the first coastal state to declare all of its waters-more than 244 square miles, including a three-mile-wide band of open ocean-a no-discharge zone (NDZ). No-discharge zones ban the use of onboard-treatment systems permitted in all other U.S. coastal waters and compel sailors to hold their sewage in tanks aboard their boats till they reach a pumpout station.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hailed Rhode Island's move as a model for other coastal states. Under the Clean Water Act, any state can apply to the EPA for permission to declare all or part of its waters an NDZ. To get EPA approval, states aren't required to show that treatment devices pose a threat to clean water; they only need to show they have "adequate and reasonably available facilities for the safe and sanitary removal and treatment of sewage" for all vessels.

Since 1992, states have spent more than $50 million in federal grant money promoting and installing dump stations (for portable toilets), floating restrooms, and pumpout stations. Marinas and other grant recipients have installed about 3,000 new pumpout stations to serve inland and coastal waters, but coverage nationwide remains sparse.

Despite opposition from cruising sailors who rely on onboard-treatment systems to purify their waste wherever they go, the EPA approved Rhode Island's plan in August 1998. "We don't believe no-discharge zones were intended for large bodies of water with plenty of tidal exchange, but for vulnerable areas that really need protection, like shellfish beds," said Elaine Dickinson of BoatUS, the nation's largest recreational boating organization. (See "Problem or Solution?," May 1998).

While no other coastal state to date has declared all of its waters an NDZ, 17 coastal harbors, bays, and estuaries nationwide have been designated as such. In Florida, Monroe County continues to push for a countywide NDZ running the length of the Florida Keys, and last year the EPA approved NDZ status for waters surrounding Key West. Also last year, Massachusetts declared Buzzards Bay an NDZ, and Maine took early steps toward adding them along its coast. In California, which has 12, there is a push to expand existing ones for the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary.

Contrary to what many people believe, the debate surrounding broad no-discharge zones isn't about dumping raw sewage into coastal waters. Nobody wants that. Since 1978, federal law has prohibited it: Boats with marine heads must have a marine sanitation device (MSD), either an onboard-treatment device (Type I or Type II) or a holding tank (Type III). Type I and Type II MSDs are mini sewage plants, certified by the U.S. Coast Guard, that macerate and purify sewage, then discharge it to EPA standards. Boats under 65 feet typically use a Type I; larger boats use Type IIs, which meet more stringent water-quality standards.

Holding tanks don't treat sewage. In coastal areas lacking adequate pumpout stations, boats equipped with only holding tanks typically have Y-valves that allow raw waste to be dumped at sea. As long as the boat is at least three miles offshore in the ocean, this is legal.

Duct Tape Won't Fix A Broken ValveSlosh, Slosh

Last summer, J.C. Mackenzie, a retired safety expert from North Carolina, and his wife, Inza, tried to follow Rhode Island's course toward the future during a month long cruise in Narragansett Bay. Their boat was built for the no-discharge waters of Lake Ontario, so they expected few problems, except perhaps long lines at pumpout stations. Their 36-foot Morris sloop, Salty Spouse, featured a 50-gallon sewage holding tank and no Y-valve; the only way to remove sewage was through the pumpout connection on deck.

After the Mackenzies arrived in Rhode Island, their cruise quickly soured. Fifty gallons of waste sloshed in their holding tank as they sailed from pumpout station to pumpout station. One pump was broken; another was closed. Another required membership in a club. Half a dozen were tucked in tight corners of marinas or inaccessible to Salty Spouse's draft of five and a half feet. Only a handful of operators answered their VHF calls. On paper, Rhode Island said it could provide pumpouts for 16,333 boaters. In reality, it could barely handle one.

"It was frustrating," said Mackenzie, who wrote a vitriolic letter to Rhode Island Governor Almond. "The local boaters won't say it, but they're using their Y-valves and dumping their tanks right in the bay. Instead of making progress in upgrading their municipal systems or enforcing existing laws against dumping raw sewage, Rhode Island has come up with a political solution."

Turning Access Routes Into Obstacle CoursesMission Pumpout

Billy and I spent three separate days retracing the Mackenzies' route.

We followed a map produced by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), the state agency that led the push for NDZ status. Available at most marinas, the map gives the telephone number, location, depth alongside, and hours of operation for each of the state's pumpout stations. According to the map, Rhode Island had eight pumpout boats and 48 pumpout stations. Along with tables showing how many boats moor in certain harbors and coves, a map of this type is one of the crucial pieces of evidence that the EPA reviews when it considers whether any proposed NDZ meets the "adequate" clause. The EPA neither checks if all pumps are working nor whether the stated depths are accurate. Nor do states guarantee that the pumps will continue to operate after an NDZ has been established.

A few days before we set out, Joe Migliore, the chief environmental scientist for RIDEM who spearheads the state's NDZ efforts, described the challenges he faces. "It's going to take some time for the new law to take hold," he told me. "We need to change the boaters' mindset."

Three days before our cruise, I tried by phone to make an appointment at four Rhode Island pumpout stations and got only voice mail, answering machines, and some frank advice from a guy named Dave at India Point Park. India Point Park, near Providence, was at the top of RIDEMs list, but Dave told me not to bother coming up the Providence River: There was no pumpout station at India Point.

Three days later, I'd received only one return phone call from a woman named Lois at Shooters, a waterfront restaurant and marina, notifying me that there was no pumpout station there, either. But if I wanted dock space, the rates were $1.25 a foot.

So Billy and I gave up on the answering machines, and with a full five-gallon holding tank, we set out. I figured if we had trouble in Billy's 22-foot-long shallow-draft powerboat, a deep-draft sailboat would be out of the question. On the first day, a Saturday, we powered six miles into a light northwesterly to Bristol harbor to find the town pumpout station perched high at the end of the town's spreader-scraping pier. The pier lay exposed to the bay's summer southwesterlies, but today it was approachable. A rusty padlock on the pump prevented us from using it.

On an adjacent finger pier, a man was sliding water skis into his boat. He just shrugged and pointed to the harbormaster's office when I asked him about the pump. Fortunately, we'd arrived during lunch hour, and the harbor-patrol officers were watching a video: Saving Private Ryan. The officers proudly told me about their new pumpout boat, a skiff equipped with a pump and holding tank that tended to boats on the town moorings. It was bobbing in a slip below their office.

"Great system," said Captain Joseph Cabral, showing me a local newspaper story about the new boat. "Nobody was using the pumpout station on the pier. It pretty much just sat there." RIDEM's map said the boat ran every day. In fact, it ran only on Mondays and Thursdays. Since today was Saturday, the pumpout-boat operator wasn't on duty. The officers said we could make an appointment to use the pumpout station on the pier if we called after 7 p.m. As I perused my map for the next nearest pumpout-station location, Officer Joseph Darosa offered some advice.

"You know, that map you got has a lot of wrong information. It really needs to be updated," he said. "We already told them [RIDEM] about that."

About 20 minutes later, the officers returned to duty, and the door to the harbormaster's office was locked-just like the pumpout station. I later asked Migliore about the discrepancies on the RIDEM pumpout guide. He said he intended to fix that in the 2001 boating season. Because the hours for the state's pumpout stations were so variable, he said, the next edition of the map wouldn't publish hours, only phone numbers.

"Boaters will only need to telephone first to confirm when the pumpout stations are open," he said. "Most people have cell phones these days, anyway."

Idle Boats at Pumpout StationCome Monday

As our Saturday search for a pumpout station resumed, I began to wonder how pumping into the state's beleaguered sewage-treatment system was supposed to work better than a Type I MSD. Particularly when I couldn't get past the first step: finding an open pumpout station. We headed from Bristol toward the next cluster of pumpout stations up the Warren River, seven miles to windward. Snaking through a couple of doglegs, we made our way up the mile-long channel against a three-knot current. Not far inside the river mouth, a pile of lobster traps hid the rusting public pumpout station, accessible only to powerboats and shallow-draft sailboats. Equipped with a hose too short to reach most deck pipes, the pump appeared inoperable. I wouldn't know for sure until Monday. A sign on the pump said I needed special tokens available at the town office. The office was several blocks away and closed on weekends.

Not one of four pumpout stations listed within a 10-mile radius of Warren answered calls on the VHF radio. I later learned that one of the stations wouldn't be answering for a while. Sadly, the owner of the marina where it was located had died, and the station had closed, its future still pending. At the local yacht club upriver, I tried to sign up for the town's pumpout boat service. The sparkling boat was sitting idle in its slip. Its hours of operation were unclear, and no one I spoke to had seen it working. No one seemed to know who or where the operator was. I would have to wait at least until Monday to know if would be afforded this service.

"Once your application is accepted, you can call and make an appointment for the pumpout boat," said the kid in Birkenstocks who guarded the forms. "But I think the service is only available to local residents. I'm not even sure if I'm supposed to give you a form."

Warren's Pumpout-Boat ServiceOn that Saturday afternoon, a day when Narragansett Bay was brimming with sailboats, powerboats, clam boats, and freighters, Billy and I covered 40 square miles of water and stopped at six pumpout stations, all to no avail. In a deep-draft sailboat, who knows how long it would take to track down a pumpout station. As it was, in a fleet-footed outboard skiff, we never would have obtained a pumpout except that the manager of Stanley Boat Yard happened to be walking down a dock while I fiddled with a new federally funded pump tucked away near the travel lift at the back of his marina.

"It's piped through my grandmother's house," said Kevin Terhune, an avid sailor whose grandfather opened the yard in 1938. He said he located the pump at the haulout basin because boats needed to be pumped out before they were hauled. His was one of five pumpout stations we visited that sat near haulout basins rather than in more accessible areas at the head of piers. "It's a real pain to pump out a boat when it's hauled out," he added.

He said he hadn't seen Warren's pumpout boat working and that it "was a pretty safe bet" that the town pumpout station wasn't working either. According to RIDEM, more than 450 boats had moorings or slips in the area.

"How many boats here do you think are pumping out?" I asked.

"I think that pretty much all the boats are getting pumped out . . . or they go offshore," he said, referring to the boundary for state waters about 20 miles from Warren, beyond which the dumping of raw sewage (and the use of onboard-treatment devices) is legal. "We had a boat in here yesterday," he added.

Pumpout Station BerthWe pushed six more miles windward to Bullock Cove, where we confronted the 75-foot-wide channel entrance. The RIDEM map said the pumpout stations in the cove accommodate six-foot drafts; my cruising guide said the channel entrance is four and a half feet deep; our chart said three and a half. The bottom was too soft and the water too murky for Billy's sounder to register.

The cove's largest marina had two pumpout stations, both located at the end of a fairway near the haulout basin. One was inaccessible to all but a small powerboat. Both were turned off. The local boaters couldn't help. "You have to come back tomorrow when the marina office is open," one told me.

Hocus-Pocus Science

Scientists like Migliore don't base the pumpout-only policy on evidence that onboard-treatment devices used in well-flushed coastal waters endanger people or the environment. Instead, they point to the 20-year-old water-quality standards the EPA established for effluent from an MSD. Although discharge from modern Type I MSDs surpasses water-quality standards for shellfish beds (a fecal-coliform count of less than 14 parts per 100 milliliters of water), the EPA's minimum standards for MSDs (a fecal-coliform count of 1,000 parts per 100 milliliters) don't. The EPA's lax standard for MSDs fuels argument for the further expansion of no-discharge zones.

At the same time, these equations fail to consider the very real health risks of a pumpout-only policy. Few boaters are aware of the health hazards associated with waste storage and transfer, and no warnings are posted at the pumpout stations we visited. Only two pumpout stations had any means of sterilization-a bucket with chlorine bleach. Three people we spoke with during our Rhode Island cruise recounted episodes of holding tanks exploding or imploding.

Today's MSDs not only beat the standards the EPA allows for them but also treat waste to more stringent health standards than those allowed for conventional sewage-treatment plants. Rhode Island's aging sewage and septic systems routinely violate clean-water standards, pumping 2 billion gallons of untreated waste into Narragansett Bay annually. More than 2,000 publicly owned sewage-treatment works in the United States pump an estimated 2.3 trillion gallons of untreated and partially treated waste into coastal waters each year. An additional 7 trillion gallons eventually reach the ocean through groundwater, rivers, and streams. To some, the irony of Rhode Island's crackdown on treatment devices seems plain. The state prohibits boaters from using the best treatment available and requires them to use pumpout stations plumbed into sewage systems that are among the worst polluters. Migliore, however, sees it differently.

"I don't buy the argument that we need to fix our public systems first," said Migliore. "We're working on that, but it's a costly project that will take years. This is something we can do now, and the funding is there. I don't think vessel operators can ensure all those onboard systems are operating, and this is a precaution."

One of Congress's leading proponents of environmental legislation, Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ), believes far-reaching bans on treatment devices aren't the answer. Saxton recently introduced a bill that encourages further development of onboard-treatment systems and would allow their use in no-discharge zones.

The Recreational Waters Protection Act (H.R. 4917) would give the EPA one year to update its standards for Type I and Type II MSDs and would exempt boats with MSDs that meet those new, more stringent standards from no-discharge zone prohibitions like Rhode Island's.

Saxton, a bluewater sailor and one of the most active environmentalists in Congress, is a senior member of the Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans Subcommittee of the House of Representatives. He co-sponsored a series of marine- and coastal-protection bills that were signed into law last year by President Clinton. At press time, the Recreational Waters Protection Act had been referred to the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, and Saxton was planning to reintroduce the bill under a new number.

"We're still working on creating a new bill," said Saxton. "I view this legislation as a way to improve marine water-treatment equipment by giving incentives to boat owners and boat manufacturers to install the latest treatment technology. Cleaner oceans are the end goal, and state-of-the-art onboard treatment can result in cleaner discharge than land-based treatment that ultimately ends up in the ocean."

The Almost Perfect Pumpout

On our second day out, Billy and I set our sights on Warwick Cove, 12 miles from Bristol, where calls on the VHF radio again went unanswered. Pushing four miles against wind and current up a narrow, six-foot-deep dredged channel, we reached two fuel docks with pumpout pumps. Both were staffed and open eight hours a day, seven days a week, and they were easy to pull alongside of.

At the first, Donald Mulligan had tied up his small cabin cruiser. Twenty gallons of raw sewage swished in his holding tank, but he hadn't come for a pumpout. He had come to get gas. A pumpout would add $5 to his bill.

Realizing this might be Billy's only chance for a pumpout action shot, I offered to pay for Mulligan's pumpout. Together we watched as dock manager Frank Rawcliff hooked up the pump.

"Sometimes we suck in paper towels and it's down for the day, but it's been working pretty well," said Rawcliff, who tended a pair of crab traps under the dock when he wasn't manning the pumps. "Usually people come in here, get fuel, and pump out. June and July we get a pretty big line of people."

John Williams, the owner of the fuel dock across the river, offered free self-service pumpouts. He claimed he had the fastest pumpout in the state, and with great animation he performed a timed demonstration. He beamed proudly when the five-gallon bucket went dry in less than a minute.

He added, however, that the pump's powerful vacuum could cause a tank to implode if it wasn't well vented or equipped with a pressure-relief valve. He said many boaters didn't know how to operate the pumps.

"This thing gives me more grief," he sighed, referring to the troubles of installing and maintaining the pump. "But if I can do just little bit of good, it's worth it." He said he paid $6,000 for the $18,000 pump; federal grant money covered the rest. "Come here on Saturday morning and you'll see the boats lining up. I'm happy to give free pumpouts as long as it doesn't interfere with my fuel business."

The Newport Slurp

What are out-of-state sailors whose boats are fitted with onboard-treatment devices supposed to do when they come to Rhode Island? The high-tech answer, according to former New England EPA director Jose P. Villares, is the portable toilet. In order to service portable toilets, marinas commonly install specifically designed dockside dump stations or equip their pumpout pumps with a special nozzle. Public restrooms aren't considered a sanitary disposal option for portable toilets.

So it was that on the final day of our dip into the no-discharge zone, Billy and I climbed aboard Another Opinion on its mooring in Newport. We had high expectations for the portable-toilet approach. In the Ocean State's sailing capital, which as many as 20,000 international and out-of-state boats visit each year, I thought we'd have a good shot at finding pumpout stations prepared for portable toilets. But two of the five pumpout stations on my map were private yacht clubs for members only. And after I tried repeatedly on the VHF radio, three remaining stations didn't answer my calls. Finally, the operator of the federally funded pumpout boat turned me down. He said he didn't do portable toilets.

So we hopped into the dinghy with the portable toilet between us and bounced off toward the nearest pumpout station, about a quarter of a mile from Another Opinion's mooring. When we arrived at the dock, two young men in baseball caps were idly chatting next to the pump. My request for a portable-toilet pumpout seemed to amuse them and generated a vigorous display of shrugs. The pump was broken, and apparently had been for some time.

"We're waiting for the government to give us more money for parts," said the taller one. "I don't think it will be up again until next season."

Next season was six months away.

They directed me to a station at a nearby yacht club, where the 18-year-old dockmaster sighed heavily, "I don't think it'll work on one of those." For a $5 fee, though, he flipped the switch on his marina's vacuum pump, then told me why he won't touch the hose. "I was hooking it up to a boat and the sewage just spewed all over my face. It got in my hair. It got in my clothes," he said. "It was pretty gross. Now I just let the boaters take care of it themselves."

I looked at the pulsing hose and the gloves I was supposed to wear to protect me from it. After a few futile tries to drain the toilet's small tank, I gave up-angry, frustrated, but mostly simply weary.

"You want a used portable toilet?" I asked him.

He shook his head, laughed as if I'd gone mad, and turned back to his office.

As I walked down the dock, the dizziness set in. Images rattled inside. Governor Almond proudly announcing his bold new plan for cleaner water. The daily special: 5.4 million gallons of raw sewage bubbling into Narragansett Bay. The kid at the yacht club hesitating to let me into Warren's pumpout club. A kaleidoscope of shrugs. And Migliore. He'd changed my mindset, all right. Tells me I need a cell phone. Mostly though, I saw sailors like the Mackenzies, who couldn't merely shrug off the charade. And I remembered other people I'd met while cruising, people who live simple lives on small boats. In an era when industries pumping poisons into the air buy credits from non-polluters, cruising sailors get no reward for conserving water, using solar energy, or moving with the wind-and no incentive to continue their search for a cleaner way to live. This was the law, in all its majestic equality.

I turned around halfway down the dock, numbly unscrewed the cap to the portable toilet, and did what I had to do. Too tired to care anymore, I dumped the contents into the green waters of Newport harbor.

Our mission was accomplished --- though not as I'd hoped.

"Good thing we only filled it with water," said Billy, snapping a few last shots.

"Some experiment, huh?" I muttered, watching as the water swirled.

Darrell Nicholson is a Cruising World associate editor.

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