Boat-waste policy could go statewide

(10/8/98 Cape Cod Times)

By JOHN LEANING

STAFF WRITER

HARWICH - The rest of coastal Massachusetts may follow the lead of Harwich and six other seaside communities that have received federal "no-discharge zone" designations for their surrounding waters. At least, that's what acting Gov. Paul Cellucci wants. And if he gets his way, Massachusetts would become the second state to receive such a federal designation.

Rhode Island was granted that status this summer. In a letter sent yesterday to John DeVillars, regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Cellucci officially requested the EPA's support and approval of the entire, 1,500-mile Massachusetts coastline as a no-discharge area.

Under such a designation, any marine discharge of sewage would be illegal unless vessels were at least three miles offshore, in federal waters. As an alternative, coastal communities would have to maintain pumpout facilities at various harbors where mariners could bring their vessels and empty sewage holding tanks for onshore treatment.

Eliminating the near-shore discharge of treated sewage (the discharge of raw sewage is prohibited within three miles of shore, although it is difficult to enforce) is an important factor in protecting shellfish beds. According to the state, some 300,000 acres of shellfish beds have been reopened in recent years as coastal water has improved, but much more can be done to improve water quality.

So far, coastal waters around seven communities - Nantucket, Wareham and Onset Bays, Waquoit Bay, Westport, Wellfleet, Stage Harbor in Chatham, and most recently Harwich - have sought and received that designation. In his letter Cellucci noted other steps the state has taken, including the Boston Harbor cleanup project and stormwater and road runoff management. "I believe that seeking a statewide 'no discharge area' designation is the natural next step toward enhancing the protection and stewardship of Massachusetts coastal waters," Cellucci said in his letter. "We would be happy to work with the Commonwealth. We'd be delighted to work toward that goal," said EPA spokesman Leo Kay from the Boston regional office.

He noted that one of DeVillars's goals as the EPA administrator is to have the entire New England coastline declared a no discharge zone. Kay said the EPA would focus on three criteria when it receives the state's application: Are there an adequate number of pumpout facilities available? Is sufficient support available to guarantee adequate enforcement and equipment maintenance? Is there proper boater education in place so the boating community knows what is coming? The EPA has 90 days from receipt of the application to approve or deny it. "This is a great initiative on the part of the governor," said Trudy Coxe, the outgoing secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

Coxe said she and her staff had prepared extensive briefing materials to support their position on the statewide no discharge designation, but Cellucci paid it little attention. "He said it was a 'no brainer,'" Coxe said with a laugh during an interview yesterday.

She said he told her no discussion was necessary because he had already signed the letter to DeVillars requesting the designation. Cellucci is in a tight gubernatorial election race against Democrat Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. Harshbarger could not be reached yesterday to comment on the proposal. Coxe said anyone who called yesterday's announcement electioneering "would be making a very short-sighted statement if they look at the record we already have."

The state has requested no discharge area designations from the EPA starting in 1991, and received its most recent designation in August in Harwich, she noted. "It would be a pretty impressive accomplishment," said Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, noting that getting the designations for other locations was not easy. Nickerson and others also pointed out that banning marine sewage discharges from coastal waters is important, but it does not address the major contributors. "It's very important, but it's not the biggest problem. The 100-pound gorilla is septic systems, road runoff, and intensive shoreline development," she said.

Harwich Harbor Master Tom Leach said the designation for his town's coastal waters, granted in August, has been greeted enthusiastically by boats that frequent his harbors. "I think it (the statewide no discharge designation) is a wonderful idea because of what it represents in attempting to clean up coastal waters," Leach said.

But he cautioned that the paper designation will mean little unless the coastal towns involved make a firm commitment - in time, personnel, money and equipment - to ensure pumpout facilities are operating the way they should. "You really have to have someone willing to commit in the strongest way, or it's just going to be on paper, and that's all it will be," he said.

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