Boat season has arrived and Long Island’s recreational seafarers are preparing their watercraft for their much-anticipated return to the water this month, but not all are aware that awaiting them off most of the South Shore are marine law-enforcement units armed with a new, strict anti-boat-sewage regulation hailed as a landmark victory for environmentalists when enacted in November.
The goal is simple: to prevent further pollution of the bays and tributaries that make up the South Shore Estuary—the 173 square-mile area between the barrier islands and marshlands that stretches from Shinnecock Bay in Southampton to Reynolds Channel at the Nassau County-New York City border. Advocates petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate the estuary a No Discharge Zone (NDZ), thereby making it illegal for boaters to flush their on-board toilets into the bays. Environmentalists and boaters alike described the move as common sense.
“Whether it be Fire Island or the mainland, whether you have a marina setting or a popular anchorage, if you get 30, 50, 100 boats in a location and if everyone in the course of a holiday weekend is flushing their toilets, you can imagine that water is no longer suitable for swimming,” says Kevin McAllister, a marine biologist and executive director of Peconic Baykeeper, a Quogue-based not-for-profit environmental watchdog organization.
“It’s really a no-brainer, the need for greater protection, when you consider all of the shellfish resources as well as bathing beaches, the public’s use of these waters—not to mention other interests such as supporting wildlife and aquatic life,” says McAllister, who filed the NDZ petition on behalf of the towns of Hempstead, Oyster Bay, Babylon, Islip, Brookhaven, Southampton and the Fire Island National Seashore after gaining their support.
LI’s original industry, fishing, is at stake, as well as taxpayer funds. “We have been very concerned about the quality of our waters, a great deal of money is being expended trying to bring our shellfish industry back,” says Islip Town Supervisor Phil Nolan, whose township was one of the first to get on board with the proposal.
The announcement comes as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is considering adding the Great South Bay—the largest bay in the estuary—to the impaired waters list, which would make it eligible for federal funding, because of brown tides in recent years. “It’s going to take a long, hard effort yet we hold out hope that we can succeed in returning the bay system to its former glory,” says state Sen. Brian X. Foley (D-Blue Point), who was also an early supporter of the NDZ classification in his former job as Brookhaven Town Supervisor.
The estuary is now the 12th NDZ in New York—five upstate with most on LI—including Peconic waters-East Hampton, Huntington-Northport Bay Complex, Port Jefferson Complex, Peconic Estuary, Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor and Hempstead Harbor.
The NDZ bans boaters from releasing both treated and untreated sewage into the water, as some newer boats have on-board sewage treatment devices that use disinfectants such as chlorine, phenols and formaldehyde to eliminate bacteria.
“The chemicals that kill the bacteria are themselves poisons in the water,” McAllister says. Still, during a public hearing last summer for the NDZ, one boater asked why the EPA was “picking on boaters” when storm-water runoff is often responsible for the fecal-coliform levels cited in beach closures, not boat sewage. EPA officials responded that the intent of the NDZ is to protect the entire estuary, not just the beaches.
A key factor in approving the NDZ was finding adequate availability of pump-out facilities in each of the towns where boaters can discharge sewage from their holding tanks. Under the Clean Vessel Act, there must be one pump-out per 300 to 600 vessels.
Most town-run pump-out stations are free, while others charge up to $5. Because some boats are too big to get within reach of these stations, towns also offer pump-out boats that meet vessels where they’re moored.
Under New York State navigation law, a boater does not need to be caught in the act of spewing sewage in the bay to be slapped with a $250 fine on the first offense or $1,000 fine for subsequent violations—boaters are fined if an inspection reveals that the vessel’s sanitary system is capable of discharging overboard. For a boater who is caught in the act, however, the penalties are a bit steeper: Fines start at $3,750.
The NDZ is enforced by DEC Police, the New York State Police, the New York State Park Police, Suffolk County police, sheriff offices, village and town police officers, harbormasters as well as bay constables.
“In this day and age, it’s no longer OK to flush a toilet on the bay and we really have to subscribe to that mindset,” McAllister says. “Our bays are under pressure from numerous insults…and this is one that we can address very quickly.”
Pump-out convenience and the overall attitude of boaters should not make this law a hard one to follow, some say. “It’s just not really affecting the boating community because pretty much everybody was obeying not discharging in the bay,” says Eddie Marone, 44, of North Babylon, who recently started liboatersclub.com as a resource for local mariners.
Boating instructors agreed. “We advise students that there is no discharge of human waste in inland waters and frankly I would be hard-pressed to find someone who does,” says Captain Richard Werner of Bethpage-based Safe Boat America, a boating safety certifications and licensing organization. “We’ve been preaching that for many years and it just makes good sense.”
Yet others tell the Press boaters were discharging sewage in the bays despite common sense and the availability of pump-out stations.
“I’ve been on boats fishing over a fishing hole and the macerator comes on and you see everything that was in that toilet come right out near your fishing hook and the thought that those fish could be eating that stuff is enough to make you pull your fishing rod out of the water,” says Robert Weltner, president of Freeport-based nonprofit Operation S.P.L.A.S.H. (Stop Polluting Littering And Save Harbors). “People have that mindset, ‘Well it’s only my small little boat,’ which it’s not,” he says.
“Did you ever hear the expression don’t poop where you eat?” he laughs.