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NDZ or MSD: keeping waters clean

Boaters are often a punching bag, even though we're not the main culprits of dumping sewage

We share a passion, you and I. Our passion is for clean waters. And we share a commitment to work together to achieve clean waters. The issue is how to best do so.

Clean water is every boater's business.

One solution increasingly advanced has been to promote what to me are misleadingly called no-discharge zones. The general public hears the term "no-discharge zone" and thinks, Hey, that's a no brainer - of course I agree with that. But the general public isn't being informed by NDZ proponents that it is already illegal for a boat to discharge sewage into U.S. waters. Statements implying that the establishment of no-discharge zones means the establishment of areas where sewage may not be discharged are inaccurate and misleading. In my opinion, NDZs actually contribute to unclean water and the dumping of waste.

There are two effective ways to handle waste from people on boats. The pumpout method has boats storing untreated sewage in holding tanks - creating methane gas as they do so - and then pumping out concentrated and sometimes huge amounts of that material into septic tanks near the water or into publicly owned treatment works, which frequently dump into the water during hard rains and breakdowns. In some areas pumpout boats are available, but these also disgorge into land facilities at the water's edge.

The second method involves the use of certified Type 1 and 2 marine sanitation devices. Type 1 MSDs are applicable to boats under 65 feet, while Type 2 MSDs are applicable to larger vessels. (A holding tank is a Type 3.) Type 1 and 2 MSDs can treat the sewage on board on a flush-by-flush basis to a degree that can equal or exceed standards of sanitation plants on land and can exceed even the water quality standards applicable to shellfishing grounds, with respect to bacterial and viral reduction (

Their performance has been validated by recognized independent third parties and government agencies. (Some make a point of saying that they discharge "treated sewage," but this is also true of every publicly owned treatment works near the water.) I've used LectraSan Type 1 MSDs on my boats since 1979 and have noted continuous development and improvement in the product during those years. I've also had holding tanks during these years, and I've repeatedly found many areas where, despite local bureaucratic legend, no pumpouts were available for my boat.

NDZs reduce the ways of handling sewage on boats from two (pumpouts and on-board treatment MSDs) to one because they prohibit use of the latter. (The comments herein don't necessarily pertain to all small, enclosed or otherwise limited-flow, high-density boating areas.)

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A linchpin to the NDZ movement is to criticize the effectiveness of all on-board treatment MSDs. Generalized statements that "they don't work" flow freely from mouths of bureaucrats who have never used or witnessed demonstrations of the devices or bothered to review the science. Anecdotal stories of individual malfunctions are cited, often without basis in fact. And although these devices do fail at times, this is true of all mechanical devices.

It is particularly true of publicly owned treatment works that regularly fail, dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the water at a time - rather than a flush or two when an on-board system fails. It is also true of individual pumpout facilities (more on that below). But no one suggests that shoreside treatment plants or pumpout facilities be outlawed because they sometimes fail.

The Environmental Protection Agency had two on-board treatment devices tested by an independent research facility and the findings were reported Sept. 18, 2008. The report found that the Electro Scan Model EST 12, even though forced to process sewage far in excess of that applicable to private pleasure boats, produced an effluent with almost no pathogen content, including fecal coliform bacteria. (It found that another system worked less satisfactorily, and the manufacturer of that system presented information to the effect that the test results as to its product were flawed.)

Despite the fact that various areas were considering applying for NDZ designations, the EPA failed to release the report until March 12, 2010. In response to my query, an EPA official stated March 5 that the report is "working its way through the final approval phase." You can see the full report at


The report did conclude that the effluent from the Electro Scan contains some "nutrient," although it also found (and seemingly overlooked the finding) that a significant amount of nutrient was removed by the device. Nutrient has become the fallback position for those advocating the pumpout-only solution. They know science doesn't support them as to bad bugs, so they now stress a "nutrient" argument.

Nutrients, in this context, are nothing more than biodegradable organic materials added to the water. As they degrade, they cause an increase in the biological oxygen demand in the water. Excessive amounts of nutrients indeed can be harmful, but every blade of grass, every leaf from every tree, every droplet of waste from fish and fowl and animal that falls into the water, every drop of beer, every old scrap of food is a nutrient that causes an increase in biological oxygen demand. The amount of nutrients introduced into the water by an on-board treatment device such as the Electro Scan has been estimated to be equivalent to, at most, a few leaves.

Who doesn't want clean water?

In 1997, when the Australian government was considering NDZ type issues, testing was conducted on the Lectra San (a predecessor to the Electro Scan) by Dr. G.S. Grohmann, a specialist in microbiology from the University of Sydney. He captured the effluent immediately outside the subject boats and had it tested for viruses and other content. He not only reported that the effluent had minimal pathogens, but also minimal nutrient content. (Any body of water has some pathogen and nutrient content.) The total effect of nutrients from all the boats that have on-board treatment devices is absurdly insignificant, and not merely because of the relatively miniscule amount per discharge.

To put the nutrient non-issue into context, consider the recent efforts of some in Maryland to have all of that state's waters, including the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay - not just enclosed basins or small creeks of high density - declared an NDZ (see BoatU.S. press release at for information). The Bay holds around 15 trillion gallons of water, is open to the Atlantic and has an unimaginable volume of water continuously flushing through it. Its shoreline, including tributaries, is greater than that of the West Coast. Around half of the water in the Bay flows in from the Atlantic; the rest comes from the tributaries of its enormous watershed (

Massive amounts of nutrients flow into the Bay from many huge rivers, including the Susquehanna, which runs around 444 miles loading nutrients from upstate New York and western Pennsylvania and all its watershed in between as it drains down to the Chesapeake. It has been estimated that the number of boats using on-board treatment devices is relatively small, yet NDZ proponents would outlaw devices that can help improve water quality because they add a miniscule amount of nutrients.

Different circumstances, different methods

But if only a small number of boats use on-board treatment devices, what's the big deal? There are many reasons it's a big deal. First, pumpouts are not a viable solution for some boats and are not a viable solution for most boats in many circumstances. In those circumstances, on-board treatment is the only viable solution and outlawing that solution creates more pollution.

Small boats that typically go out for short distances, traveling at relatively fast speeds and returning to their marinas in a few hours - the majority of boats - may be able to easily pumpout. But there are many different types of boats. Large vessels often cannot access pumpout stations because the stations are in areas of shallow water, in areas that are too restricted for safe maneuvering, are at crowded fuel docks, in areas primarily used for repair and haulout operations, or are inaccessible for other reasons.

The benefits of no discharge zones are clear in areas with large concentrations of boats.

Pumpouts placed at haulout docks or service areas in a marina may be particularly inaccessible because the spaces are in use for long periods for repair or haulout work - a much more profitable operation for the marina. Also, they are usually tucked up in a corner that is inaccessible to larger boats of limited maneuverability in tight quarters. Further, at periods of high need - for example, the end of a weekend - the number of facilities may be inadequate, even if they are in the open, working and accessible.

Larger boats often remain out for days at a time and at great distances from their home marina and other marinas, making it difficult if not impossible to pumpout when needed. If there is a certified on-board treatment device aboard, there need be no dumping of sewage.

Small, fast boats whose occupants are aboard for only a few hours may have less of a problem obtaining pumpouts. Unfortunately, even many smaller boats out for a day of fishing or beaching often fill their holding tanks, with no effective way to deal with the problem short of racing in early in the day to a pumpout that may not be working or may be swamped with traffic. Lacking an on-board treatment option, they often dump the sewage.

The proof of this is in the pudding. Obviously, the NDZ is not having its intended effect. In long-
established NDZs, health officials have repeatedly had to close the waters to shellfishing during periods of increased boating, such as July 4 and Labor Day, because of concern for high fecal coliform counts. In these areas only Type 3 MSDs (holding tanks) are permitted.

Long Island Sound has been at the forefront of the NDZ drive. We've noticed more than 25 Coast Guard Local Notices to Mariners to this effect for this area since 2005 and there are more. Discharge from boats - and here boats are allowed only holding tank MSDs - was specifically mentioned. (Go to Click on a year, then on Go to District 1. Open or save the archives for any year starting in 2005.)

For a thorough and enlightening analysis of the situation, see the following material by Chuck Husick. Husick is technical editor of BoatU.S. Magazine and is or has been contributing editor to such boating publications as Sail, Cruising World, Power & Motoryacht, Yachting, Ocean Navigator and Southern Boating. He has more than 43 years of technical experience in marine related matters. He's also been a successful senior executive for major organizations in the electronics, aerospace and recreational boating industries, including Schlumberger, Cessna Aircraft Company, Fairchild Industries, and Chris-Craft.

( and,%20Response.pdf).

Dots don't tell the story

To establish an NDZ, a locality must show the EPA that there will be a certain number of pumpout stations in the area. Local authorities often produce maps with dots indicating numerous pumpouts, but the dots don't tell the true story. There is seldom, if ever, verification of the accuracy of the information being provided by various local governments.

For example, the agency does not investigate the accessibility of the facilities to all boats, such as larger boats, deep-draft boats, single-screw boats and other boats of limited close-quarters maneuverability. And while the law may require a certain number of pumpout stations in a certain area, it does not require that these be strategically located so they are practically accessible to all boats. This results in many areas, such as long rivers, with heavy boat concentrations and inadequate or no pumpout facilities. Many boats in these areas must add several hours to a weekend trip in order to get a pumpout. In the real world, this is probably not going to happen. If these boats have on-board treatment devices, there is no dumping.

This boater must travel around five miles from his dock to the only pumpout station for a large, popular, rural boating area.

In addition to the above problems, larger vessels often anchor for one or several nights. Typical anchorages are in out-of-the-way places, not in the midst of marina areas. Quite frequently, high winds or storms make it dangerous to leave an anchorage for a pumpout or to attempt to maneuver into a dock.

Humans simply cannot refrain from bowel movements for long periods of time. If the boat doesn't have an on-board system and the holding tank becomes full, raw sewage must be released. Gauges for measuring holding tank levels frequently fail. It's hard enough to find a long-term reliable gauge for a fuel or water tank. And even if a gauge is working, you can't control the bladder and bowel functions of several people when stuck in an anchorage for long periods of time.

NDZ proponents, including some bureaucrats, blithely say, "Let them hold their knees together," or "Let them use a bucket." While this may sound cute and elicit a chuckle among extremists, it represents an irresponsible attitude while dealing with a very serious issue.

To compound the problem, pumpout stations often are inoperative. Once an NDZ is designated, the EPA does not police the area to determine that the pumpouts functioning at the time of the designation continue to work and be available ( Because of this, many stations become inoperative after the marina gets its pumpout grant funds. This results in increased discharge of sewage.

When a boat's holding tank is full with no pumpout access and no on-board treatment device, the owner is forced to dump concentrated amounts of raw sewage overboard. I've been in many harbors listening to desperate calls from boaters for pumpouts when the equipment is down.

When Rhode Island made its waters an NDZ, Darrel Nicholson, then associate editor of Cruising World magazine and now editor of Practical Sailor, made repeated attempts to obtain pumpouts at locations that the state, in its representations to the EPA and the public, claimed to have facilities. He found almost none available (

Once I observed a pumpout system in a fine Florida marina malfunction and cause a huge flood of stored raw sewage to cascade down a parking lot to the water's edge - and then into the water. There have been many instances when pumpout facilities malfunctioned during actual pumpouts, resulting in raw sewage spewing all over the participants and into the water. These are but a few examples of hundreds of cases of raw sewage being dumped by pumpout systems.

Campaign of deceit

The campaign to totally outlaw on-board treatment devices by the establishment of NDZs has often been based upon misrepresentations and has taken advantage of the fact that the general public, including many boaters, is uninformed as to the science and the issues.

Some bureaucrats working for local environmental agencies often spearhead campaigns locally, even though they have never tested and observed the effectiveness of approved on-board devices. This is too much work, and presumably the environment isn't worth the effort to them. Some have even made statements to the effect that they would have a more difficult time policing on-board devices. These devices can be policed. One even offers a computer readout reflecting its usage. But, again, this would be more work for the bureaucrats sucking up your tax dollars supposedly to do a job.

Pumpouts must be plentiful and accessible in the quest to keep our waters clean.

And they assuredly aren't adequately policing pumpout laws now, as is proved by the many instances of shellfishing bans in NDZs during high boating activity. Instead, they often take the easy way out, involving the least work for themselves.

A telling indication of the lack of true concern by responsible officials is the lack of DNA testing to establish sources of pollution. If one is truly interested in solving the problem, one must deal with the actual source, not an easy-out sound-bite source. DNA testing can determine whether waste material comes from humans, animals, fowl or other sources. This science has seldom, if ever, been utilized by enforcement officials. On the rare occasions when this has been done, the offending pollution was found to be from non-human sources, which would, of course, exclude boaters.

Follow the money and you see the potential for abuse. Obviously, those in the pumpout industry benefit from government funding and pumpout sales. It is in their business interests to influence bureaucrats and other officials to establish NDZs that give the boating public no option but to buy their products.

Other marine industry sectors often profit, in one form or another, from advocating NDZs. For example, marinas receive government funds to install pumpout stations. Marinas often must apply to local environmental authorities to get permission to repair or improve infrastructure. Some feel obligated to support the pumpout-only program if they want approvals for their operation and expansion, knowing that those approvals must come from the bureaucrats who are campaigning for NDZ support. Also, many marinas feel that the public, misinformed into believing that NDZ and "no discharge" are synonymous, will be less likely to oppose their applications if those marinas have made a show of jumping on the NDZ bandwagon. And don't forget the grants, from your tax dollars, for pumpout programs.

News media are given incomplete information by many environmental officials, persons and entities with a vested interest in the NDZ concept. They then provide a steady stream of misinformation to the public to the effect that the establishment of an NDZ prohibits discharge of sewage, which is already prohibited. The public is misled into thinking that NDZ proposals add to environmental protection rather than diminish it. The public is seldom, if ever, fully informed of the issues and the science. In any community where an NDZ campaign is being waged, local press regurgitates the mistruths (see

Keith Jones provides a unique perspective on all of this. He lives on the beautiful East River of Mobjack Bay in Virginia and owns a marina that has been awarded designation as a "Clean Marina" ( He is so passionate about the environment that, in addition to the grant-funded pumpout station, he added a pumpout device at every slip - at his own expense. He now sells the Keco pumpout system ( that he installed at his marina.

Jones has a 45-foot sailboat that he has cruised from Maine to the Bahamas, and in 2009 he installed an Electro Scan system. He is a fervent supporter of accessible pumpout solutions, boater education and on-board treatment systems. He cites many experiences while cruising when the pumpout systems were not functioning or were inaccessible to his sailboat. With his on-board treatment system and holding tank, he is now able to deal with waste either by pumpout or on-board treatment.

He notes that the pumpout grant program is funded by excise taxes on fishing tackle and marine fuels, so boaters should insist that marinas install accessible and functioning systems. He has invited and shown his marina, and on-board treatment systems, to scientists, politicians and regulators - all of whom were predisposed toward NDZ legislation though none had ever seen a Type 1 MSD or a marina with in-slip pumpout.

Politics as usual

And then there are the politicians, always looking for an easy "no-risk, no-brainer" way to garner votes. If you can stand up and beat your breast to champion a cause that everyone supports, you win elections.

Many politicians feel that they can do this by proposing NDZs. They know that the misinformed public doesn't realize that an NDZ diminishes rather than increases tools to deal with the issue. Thus, they can claim from the stump, "I did something about it," while avoiding going after massive polluters such as publicly owned treatment works, large farm operations and other major industry. Yet when municipalities, industry and other sources dump raw sewage into the waters, many politicians and bureaucrats, having championed an NDZ, feel safe in either overlooking the incidents or by actually describing them as not very harmful in the long run (,

For example, while the Maryland attorney general recently was pushing for an NDZ for all Maryland waters, and the legislature was conducting public hearings, the city of Baltimore suffered a 30-million-gallon dump of raw sewage into the Patapsco River - from the government sewage system. Other examples of publicly owned treatment works dumping include 10 million gallons of raw sewage from treatment system failure dumped into Elliot Bay near Seattle in May 2009 and a dump of 493,000 gallons into Puget Sound the previous June. A local official was reported as saying the 10 million gallons had "no discernable effect" on receiving waters.

The Ashley River in South Carolina received the blessing of 206,000 gallons of raw sewage from a treatment system failure, as reported on local television in February. The river was soon open to business as usual. While anchored in Newport Harbor shortly after Rhode Island was declared an NDZ, we repeatedly saw huge upwellings of sewage from the area publicly owned treatment works. And I can assure you that it was sewage.

In a stellar example of irresponsible knee-jerk actions, the North Carolina legislature recently passed a vague and poorly worded enactment that prohibits any discharge of effluent from on-board treatment devices not only in areas designated as NDZs with adequate pumpout stations, but also in areas that have merely made application for such designation. In these areas there may be very few, if any, accessible pumpout stations.

The law also requires marinas with "large" boats (with no definition of the word "large") to maintain pumpout records, and boats (including transients) with "marine sanitation devices" (with no reference as to which type) to maintain records of pumpouts for a year. There are, in fact, large areas in the state where there are no pumpout facilities. The enactment authorizes a plethora of law enforcement officials, including local sheriff deputies, to police the law.

Many politicians and bureaucrats, knowing that they are expected to champion clean waters, go after the pleasure boater - an easy target - with a campaign based on the false premise that boaters are allowed to dump sewage unless an NDZ is established. Some bureaucrats and politicians even admit, in a colossally cowardly copout, that since they can't handle the big guys they will go after the boater. The dishonesty of this approach is bad enough. However, what makes it far worse is that it often results in further harm to the waters (For information regarding this concern, see the following:

Environmental litigation

The question of litigation is sometimes raised. While many parties pushing for NDZ designations are sincere in their efforts, there exists the possibility that some parties pushing for NDZs may be guilty of deliberately harming the environment for monetary and political gain. It has long been part of our environmental law that parties knowingly causing environmental harm be subject to both civil and criminal penalties, upon appropriate procedures and findings.

To date, litigation against those disseminating false information about the efficacy of the NDZ hasn't been filed, possibly for several reasons. These may include the fact that some of those in the government usually responsible for filing this type of litigation could be among the guilty parties. Also, private environmental groups, as is true of some government employees, are prone to follow ideology rather than science. It's easier this way. They know that the public, which donates funds, wants to hear stirring sound bites, not scientific data. They haven't taken the time or spent the money to examine, without bias, all the empirical data relating to properly functioning on-board treatment devices and all of the facts relating to all types of boats. Thus, they haven't opted to spend the bucks to litigate. And small groups of boaters and manufacturers hardly have the dollars to take on the big guys pushing the ideology.

In addition to litigation centering on environmental harm, parties knowingly slandering products of private companies are subject to civil procedure and penalties. The victims of this slander could be private companies that are marketing and improving modern on-board treatment technology to contribute to clean water. But one would assume that these companies don't have the money to fight political campaigns.

Outhouse vs. technology

In order to more effectively remove boat sewage from the clean water issue, alternate methods must be available to handle all circumstances. Years ago, the federal government established standards for on-board treatment equipment. Some companies met those standards in their products. Now products are available that exceed those standards. Some companies have been requesting even higher standards, expressing a willingness to meet them. They offer solutions when the pumpout, for one reason or another, isn't an option.

The boating public wants to prevent dirty waters. Some of the boating public has no choice much of the time except the option of on-board treatment. Also, much of the boating public would prefer methods that avoid hauling around huge amounts of raw waste, creating methane gas, going to a pumpout if and when it's possible, and inserting a well-used dripping nozzle into their system while wondering how they're going to honestly wash it off after the process and hoping and praying that there's no malfunction during the process.

But the prohibition of the use of certified on-board treatment devices discourages the public from purchasing them and discourages companies from manufacturing them and improving the technology. It perpetuates what is essentially outhouse technology while stymieing continued development of on-board treatment systems.

Science, not ideology

Science, not ideology, should play the key role in saving our waters. Members of the public who care about clean waters should work to increase rather than decrease methods of dealing with the problem. In an encouraging development, informed members of the public presented much information to the Maryland legislature in April hearings regarding the NDZ proposal before them. That proposal did not pass.

Both pumpouts and certified on-board treatment devices should be utilized, and efforts to improve existing tools and create better ones should be aggressively encouraged, not killed.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat,"

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.