EARLIER this week, Rhode Island became the first coastal state to ban the emptying of boat toilets into its ocean waters. It's time Massachusetts followed suit. Boaters in the Ocean State now face a fine of up to $2,000 for flushing a toilet while in Narragansett Bay or waters up to three miles off the coast. Some officials in New Hampshire are contemplating a similar ban for their tiny coastline. But no other state has applied for no-discharge-status for its ocean waters even though several towns - most of them on Cape Cod - have adopted flush-free zones.
The federal Clean Water Act already outlaws the dumping of raw sewage from boats, but the Rhode Island initiative and the local no-discharge areas prohibit dumping of any waste, including treated sewage. The Rhode Island regulation makes sense - not only for Massachusetts but for all our coastal states. Our nation's coastal resources, including shellfish and recreational beaches, deserve better protection. Our coastal waters - already threatened by contaminated storm runoff and nitrogen from failing septic systems - are not an open toilet. While several areas of Cape Cod and the islands, including Waquoit Bay in Falmouth, Stage Harbor in Chatham and Nantucket Harbor, are already designated as no-discharge zones, protection of our coastal waters is a patchwork of disconnected flush-free areas.
Why prohibit sewage dumping in Waquoit Bay and allow it a few miles downwind in Falmouth Harbor? Why encourage boaters who cannot dump their holding tanks in Wellfleet waters to discharge treated sewage off Truro? Current protections do not go far enough. We need a uniform, statewide no-discharge law that protects the 1,500 miles of Bay State coastline out to three miles. Short of that, we need a Capewide no-discharge zone of our 550 miles of coastline that should be championed by the Cape Cod Commission.
Stephen McKenna, assistant regional coordinator for the federal Coastal Zone Management office on the Cape and islands, said a Capewide no-discharge zone is "a real sound idea.'' But extending the protections is not going to be easy. Communities must ensure long-term management of appropriate land-based or mobile pumpout facilities are available along our embayments. But these facilities can be maintained by public or private enterprises, and federal money is available to support such facilities through the Clean Vessel Act.
Another hurdle is going to be some boating interests. In Rhode Island, several boating groups argued that the ban would inconvenience recreational yachters and others who now have to pump out their sewage tanks at marinas. They fought for a compromise that would ban dumping in the sensitive parts of Narragansett Bay, but allow dumping in the three-mile coastal zone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which considered the boaters' complaints, approved Rhode Island's request for the ban after determining that boaters will not be unduly inconvenienced. Boaters will have their wastes removed at one of 43 privately operated pumpout stations at a cost of about $5. Which is why Rhode Island's new law is pro-business as well as pro-environment. "A clean bay will generate more fishing and shellfishing,'' said Gov. Lincoln Almond of Rhode Island. "It will attract even greater numbers of tourists.'' He's right. A statewide no-discharge area will certainly not discourage prospective skippers from buying new boats. And more and more companies will have to set up shop near our marinas to handle the waste.
As a result, we challenge our Massachusetts environmental leadership - especially Environmental Affairs Secretary Trudy Coxe - to ask the EPA to prohibit discharging waste in Bay State waters. In addition, we call on our legislators - especially the Cape Cod delegation - to either file legislation supporting a statewide no-discharge zone or push Coxe to seek the same ban that Rhode Island gained from the EPA. In the meantime, we call on the Cape Cod Commission to begin pushing for a Capewide no-discharge designation. It's time we further protected our coastal waters.