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Boaters Beware: State Wants to Ban Sewage Dumping in Puget Sound

It might surprise you to learn that you can dump the contents of your toilet into Puget Sound and not get in trouble. That’s essentially what some boaters do when they discharge their sewage into the water instead of pumping it out at a dock or marina.

The state Department of Ecology has proposed a federally-enforced ban on dumping in Puget Sound to stop the practice.

Amy Jankowiak with the state Department of Ecology says the state has been working on evaluating the feasibility and appropriateness of putting a dumping ban in place for two years. The department has now written the proposed law, which is ready for public comment.

“The time is right right now, as we work to protect the Puget Sound,” she said. “So this is one step and one piece of that puzzle.”

New Here, Common Elsewhere

In addition to public feedback, Jankowiak says the department will ask the EPA to review the proposed ban. Though it’s pretty common elsewhere, the proposed ban is new around these parts.

“This would be the first no-discharge zone for not only Washington state, but the Pacific Northwest. There are more than 80 no-discharge zones established around the country, in 26 different states,” she said.

The list includes most of California’s coastal waters and nearly all of the Great Lakes, as well as several east coast locations such as Connecticut’s Mystic River and Boston Harbor in Massachusetts.

Former King County Executive Ron Sims, who is now vice chair of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, supports the proposed ban.  

“We look at the Sound and say, ‘Look, it's huge. It's river-fed. It's immense,’ without realizing it is, in fact, a confined water body that is very fragile and very susceptible to damage by things like raw sewage [being dumped] into the water,” he said.

The Puget Sound Leadership Council governs the Puget Sound Partnership, which is tasked with restoring and protecting water quality in Washington’s inland marine waters.

‘There Are Pumpouts In Most Locations’

The Department of Ecology says there are many programs in place to help Washington boaters make the adjustment, but some boat groups have raised concerns about costly retrofits. Boaters can always use pumpouts, says Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, one of the several nonprofit advocates working on the transition.

“I think when you consult the maps, people will realize that there are pumpouts in most locations,” said Wilke. There are more than a hundred pumpout locations now, says Wilke, and improved technology has allowed them to become more reliable and easier to use. And most of the time, they’re available at no charge.  

Wilke says the ban would also help keep other pollutants out the shellfish beds that many boaters are eager to visit and harvest from.

“A lot of the disinfectants and the deodorizers that are put into the boat systems are pollutants also. And they are designed to be toxic to life, and we are discharging those into Puget Sound. So this will help reduce those as well,” he said.

Only about 10 percent of boaters are not yet in compliance, says Wilke.

The 60-day public comment period on the proposed permanent ban continues through April 21.

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