Sign up for E-Alerts
Enter your email to receive Riverkeeper E-Alerts
While most boaters are conscientious stewards of the environment, the standard marine toilet installed on many vessels can harm the delicate aquatic ecosystem. A “Marine Sanitation Device,” commonly known as an MSD II, “treats” sewage only by mascerating and chlorinating wastes before discharging them overboard. This limited treatment can add harmful solids, nutrients, chemicals, and other pollutants to receiving waters, thereby contributing to water quality degradation.
In particular, the discharge of vessel waste often contains chemical additives such as formaldehyde, phenols and chlorine. These wastes increase loadings of nutrients, pathogens and chemicals, and may adversely affect water quality, sensitive and important resources, and uses of these waters. Vessel sewage therefore threatens the ecological integrity of the Hudson and poses a health threat to those who live and recreate on or near the water.
The federal Clean Water Act authorizes the designation of “no discharge zones” (NDZs) for waters deserving of greater environmental protection. In a NDZ, all vessels are prohibited from discharging sewage, whether treated or not.
On October 9, 2003, Hudson Riverkeeper Alex Matthiessen joined EPA Regional Administrator Jane Kenny and other officials to announce the establishment of a 153-mile “No Discharge Zone” in the Hudson River. From the Battery in New York City to the Troy Dam, boats are now prohibited from releasing treated or untreated sewage, thereby eliminating a source of bacterial and chemical contamination in the river.
As required by Clean Water Act section 312(f)(3), the Hudson River has more than adequate facilities for the safe and sanitary removal and treatment of sewage. These facilities are reasonably available to all vessels, both recreational and commercial.
In 1992, New York State petitioned EPA to designate two portions of the Hudson River as NDZs due to the presence of drinking water intakes in which the discharge of sewage from vessels would be prohibited, whether treated or not. In 1995, EPA still hadn’t acted on NYS’s petition and Riverkeeper filed suit to force EPA to act. As a result of our lawsuit, in December 1995, EPA designated two “drinking water intake zones”: one NDZ is approximately 60 miles long from Roseton to Houghtaling Island; the other is an 8 mile-stretch above the Troy dam. As a result, for the last eight years, all vessels have been prohibited from discharging sewage in approximately 40% of the navigable Hudson.
In April 1999, pursuant to the federal Clean Water Act and a state law (the Hudson River Marine Sanitation Act), New York State designated the entire navigable Hudson as a NDZ, and petitioned the U.S. EPA for a determination that marine pump-out facilities are reasonably available. The NDZ did not take effect, however, until EPA made the requested determination. (New Jersey also made a similar request to EPA for its portion of the Hudson River.)
In September 2000, EPA made a tentative affirmative determination that adequate facilities for the safe and sanitary removal and treatment of sewage from all vessels are reasonably available for the Hudson River, and published that determination in the Federal Register. EPA provided and then extended a public comment period, which expired in December 2000.
After receiving public comment and considering the issue over an extended period, EPA on October 9, 2003, made the final determination under Clean Water Act section 312 that adequate pumpout facilities do exist on the Hudson, thereby establishing the NDZ.
Vessel sewage, unlike domestic sewage, is highly concentrated, given the lower volume of water used for flushing. The discharge of sewage from vessels can kill shellfish beds and create lower oxygen levels. As a result, the discharge of sewage by a number of boats on a waterbody can pose a definite health problem. The discharge of untreated or partially treated human wastes from vessels can raise bacteria counts and increase human health risks associated with water contact. When concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria rise above safe levels, local health boards act to close swimming areas. A fecal coliform bacteria count of 14 (or greater) MPN per 100 milliliters of water results in the closing of shellfish beds.
Fecal coliform bacteria, which are found in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals, are aquatic indicator organisms in the water. Their presence is used to predict the presence of other harmful organisms. Shellfish filter water across their gills, and the collected particles from the water moves into their stomachs and other visceral organs. As a result, shellfish have the ability to collect harmful organisms, and to pass these organisms-at a much higher concentrations-on to unsuspecting consumers.
The Hudson River provides wonderful opportunities for boating. There are dozens of community boat clubs and public marinas along both shores from Manhattan to Troy. But maintaining these facilities in an environmentally-protective manner can be challenging.
The gradual accumulation of silt in boat basins reduces the depth of slips and, without periodic maintenance dredging, would render them unusable. However, due to years of industrial activities on the Hudson, the dredged sentiments may be contaminated and therefore should must be contained in a manner that prevents pollutants from re-entering the environment. The sediment contamination, however, is largely not caused by the boat basins themselves, but by other polluters such as General Electric’s PCB capacitor plants. Standard practice of decades past was to dump dredged sediments into deeper open water. As this was phased out, the spoils were sent to upland to solid waste landfills for use as cover material.
But today, there are few if any local landfills available to accept these wastes. Thus, due to the scarcity of disposal locations and the extremely high cost of transport and disposal, very few marina operators have been able to obtain maintenance dredging permits over the last ten to fifteen years.
Without dredging permits, some marina operators have resorted to the illegal and polluting method of “prop washing” their slips (i.e., revving a boat’s engine in shallow water to disperse sediments). Meanwhile, more powerful interests, particularly public agencies operating in New York Harbor, are readily permitted to dredge and dispose of spoils in open water or at upland locations. Riverkeeper is dedicated to working with boaters, marina operators, and New York State’s Hudson River Estuary Program to find a solution that will facilitate environmentally-safe maintenance dredging for recreational boat basins on the Hudson.
There are at least 35 pump-out facilities on the Hudson, which is approximately one facility per 208 vessels. Each of eight segments of the River exceeds the more stringent “standard guideline” of at least one pump-out per 300 vessels. There are also three publicly-funded pump-out boats operating on the River, one funded by Westchester County and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation which pumps out in Buchanan, another provided funded by New York State and operating out of White’s Marina in New Hamburg, and a third that was recently acquired by the Liberty Landing Marina. There are also 39 facilities on the River capable of servicing portable toilets.
It is important to note and support continuous efforts to improve upon pumpout resources for marine recreational vessels through the federal Clean Vessel Assistance Program (“CVAP”). Through this program, the availability, public awareness, and public use of pumpout and dump stations have increased dramatically. The CVAP provides assistance exclusively to recreational vessels, since its funding is drawn from recreational permits, fishing permits, and the purchase of personal floatation devices.
There are a variety of readily available pumpout options available to commercial vessels on the Hudson: (1) they can access stationary or mobile (i.e., “honey-dipper” trucks or boats) pump-out facilities at their home base or any other fuel dock, terminal or facility in New York Harbor both before and after transiting the NDZ; (2) they can access pump-out facilities, trucks or one of three Hudson River pump-out boats while docked at their cargo off-loading terminals up-River in the NDZ; (3) they can utilize one of the 39 facilities that service portable toilets; (4) if transitting from outside the region, discharging outside of the no-discharge zone; or, (5) they can utilize an alternative solution such as Incinolet, an electric waste incinerating product currently being introduced on new ships by carriers such as Moran, Bouchard, and Exxon/Mobile. Any vessel that has a home port in the Hudson River or New York Harbor, or which docks for the purpose of receiving fuel or unloading cargo in the River or Harbor has access to a pump-out truck or pumpout boat at such home port, fuel dock or cargo terminal.
Some commercial operators have pump-out facilities installed at their docks (for example, World Yachts, which includes the Circle Line, has such facilities at its port the west side of Manhattan; NY Waterways has these services available at its Port Imperial, NJ location; SeaStreak ferries in New Jersey also has its own on-site pumpout facilities; and Dutch Apple Tours, based in Albany, also has pumpout facilities at its dock). Others make arrangements with local waste haulers to service their vessels.
There are also adequate pubically-available commercial pumping stations on the Hudson, including Liberty Landing, Pancor Marine, Inc., White’s Marina, Kingston West Strand, and Dutch Apple Tours’s port in Albany, New York, which can accommodate most larger vessels.
Additionally, many tour and ferry vessels have waste haulers pump them out at their home ports rather than utilize stationary pumpout stations. For example, the S.S. Slater, a 306-foot battleship docked in Albany, New York has Blue Diamond Septic Haulers regularly pump out its holding tank. Many others have home ports in Staten Island and can or do utilize local waste haulers. Also, many can have a waste hauler meet them at a public marina, such as the Port of Albany. The New York State Department of State, Division of Coastal Resources recently surveyed local waste haulers and found that they can or do service commercial vessels in this area.
EPA recommends the following 5 steps for citizens to help reduce pollution from marine sanitation devices:
1. Marina owners and operators should understand and provide information to boaters that improper vessel discharges of sewage can result in beach closures, shellfish contamination, and loss of recreational opportunities.
2. Boaters and other citizens should be encouraged to read the information and to participate in activities that support a clean and healthy aquatic environment.
3. Marina owners and operators should provide clean and safe on-shore sanitary restroom facilities for boaters, and maintain adequate pumpout and dump facilities and encourage their use.
4. Boaters should be encouraged to install and use a Coast Guard-certified Marine Sanitation Device (MSD) appropriate for their vessel and the type of waterbody where the vessel will be operated (information on MSDs is available at www.epa.gov/owow/oceans/regulatory/index.html and they should also be encouraged to learn how to use and maintain their MSDs properly, and to learn how to use marina pumpout stations for Type III MSDs.
5. Citizens should report violations of the MSD program to their local Coast Guard station (listed in the telephone book or located at www.USCG.mil).
Ferry operations are expanding extremely rapidly in New York Harbor and beyond. With the temporary loss of PATH train service to the World Trade Center since September 11, 2001, New York Waterway has become the largest private ferry operator in the nation with its average weekday ridership increasing from 32,000 to 65,000.
While ferries are an attractive component of the transportation system, they can also be environmentally damaging: air emissions from ferries can be hundreds of times greater per passenger mile than buses or cars; ferry wakes (which vastly exceed those of all other boats in size, energy and frequency) damage shorelines, wetlands, bulkheads, floating docks and other marine infrastructure; and ferry navigation can interfere with recreational vessels, particularly the growing contingent of hand-powered boaters which use our public access waters.
Riverkeeper and a San Francisco-based environmental group, Bluewater Network, have organized a NY/NJ Clean Ferry Coalition of local environmental groups.
In December 2002, we submitted a comment letter to DEC and New York City calling for greater environmental review and mitigation of the air pollution, wakes, and navigational conflicts before the Pier 79 (W 39th St in Manhattan) ferry terminal and other facilities are expanded.
In July 2003, Bluewater Network released a groundbreaking new study which concluded that ferries operating in New York Harbor are 100 to 1,000 times more polluting per passenger than cars, buses or trains. As a result, rapid ferry expansion in New York Harbor is worsening the region’s unhealthy air and threatening public health. Riverkeeper has joined Bluewater Network in calling on New York policymakers to require use of cleaner fuels and technologies before new ferries are put on the water. The main problem is that ferries operate on uncontrolled diesel engines.