When ‘the law is a ass’


Mr. Bumble, one of the characters in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” commented that, “If the law supposes that … the law is a ass — a idiot.” So it is with Section 312 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq.)

This law, enacted in 1972, and unchanged since, defines the way in which boats operating in a no-discharge zone may dispose of sewage. The law gives us only two options for waste: hold it and pump it ashore, or dump it in the open ocean when far enough offshore.

The law and those charged with its enforcement at the EPA both choose to ignore more than 35 years of scientific progress in the on-board treatment of sewage that can now deliver vessel waste cleaner than the water in which your boat is floating. Instead of encouraging the use of the best available technology to safeguard our marine environment, our government continues to insist that mariners, in effect, just cross our legs and hold it. This is wrong!

I have been working to get the rules changed for some 12 years. With the help of my congressman, C.W. Bill Young, I was able to meet with Mr. David Redford, Office of Water at EPA headquarters in Washington.

I met with Mr. Redford June 10 to review the fact that recent EPA tests have confirmed that the Raritan ElectroScan Type I treatment system treats waste 400 times more effectively than required by the Type I MSD specification (effluent coliform count less than 2.4 per 100 ml). The federal standard for posting a swimming area as unsafe is 200 coliform per 100 ml, 83 times that of the output of the ElectroScan treatment unit.

I asked if we may legally discharge this exceptionally clean water in an NDZ. His response: “No.” I then asked if we would legally be allowed to discharge waste that had been converted into distilled water (a process routinely used on the space station to provide drinking water) into the waters of an NDZ. His answer was, again, an emphatic, “No.”

Mr. Redford explained that his EPA lawyers tell him that the agency has no discretion in this matter, that the law does not permit any discharge of waste from a vessel into the NDZ, regardless of the degree to which it may have been purified and even if the water in which the boat is floating is significantly polluted.

I jokingly suggested that EPA clean up a polluted bay by having a few dozen boats equipped with ElectroScan MSDs pump seawater through their toilets. Since that water passes through the toilet, however, Section 312 makes doing so completely illegal. No technical advancement in waste treatment makes a bit of difference. Until Congress acts to update the law, mariners are stuck. Nothing we might do to treat waste on board will make any difference; the only remedy is that Congress must change the law.

In general, EPA does a fine job protecting the environment. Our air today is cleaner than in 1972, when EPA was established. The same may be said for our rivers and streams. We might expect EPA to recommend changes in the law when they would help to protect the environment. In this instance, however, EPA representatives have stated that the agency has no interest in recommending a change in Section 312 to Congress!

The attitude of the EPA reminds me of a current TV commercial from the Post breakfast cereal company in which they extol their pride in the total lack of change in Shredded Wheat — “We Keep the NO in Innovation” (click here to see the commercial).

EPA well-knows that the Declaration of Goals and Policy of the Act (33 U.S.C. 11251) Sec. 101(a)(6) states: “It is the national policy that a major research and demonstration effort be made to develop technology necessary to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters, waters of the contiguous zone, and the oceans.” Based on its own laboratory tests, EPA knows that both Raritan and Groco provide treatment technology that can be used safely in virtually all tidal waters, including those designated as NDZs.

EPA’s new Emission Standards for Diesel Engines provides clear evidence of the ability of the agency to work with the marine industry to safeguard and improve air quality. It is now time to insist that EPA ask Congress to change Section 312 to mandate the use of Best Available Technology in on-board waste treatment and discharge.

— Chuck Husick
President, OWA Inc.
St. Petersburg, Fla.


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