Petition seeks to outlaw release of treated sewage in local waters

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Every time a boater discharges waste into the Long Island South Shore Estuary, water quality suffers. In order to keep this from happening, Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister wants the estuary marked as a no-discharge zone.

“This is no longer the 1960s or ’70s, when the boats were smaller and didn’t have toilets onboard,” Mr. McAllister said. “Now the boats are larger and have multiple toilets onboard, and it’s just not appropriate to flush the toilet into the marinas anymore.”

It is illegal to discharge untreated sewage into the estuary, but it is still legal to release treated sewage. Treated sewage carries chemicals such as formaldehyde, phenols and chlorine that can harm water quality and affect human health, Mr. McAllister said.

Earlier this month, a petition prepared by Mr. McAllister’s office was handed to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation with the goal of achieving the special designation, which outlaws the discharge of boat sewage in protected waters. The petition was signed by representatives of the Fire Island National Seashore and six towns bordering the estuary, including Brookhaven and Southampton.

The estuary starts at Long Beach and extends 75 miles east to Southampton Village. The estuary reserve was created by the New York State Legislature in 1993.

“We are, in a bipartisan fashion, very committed to the cleanliness of the water and that is something I can be very proud of,” said Brookhaven 5th District Councilman Tim Mazzei, whose council district encompasses portions of the Great South Bay and Moriches Bay. “To dump it in the bay would be obnoxious.”

No-discharge zones were created under the federal Clean Water Act, established by Congress in 1972. Twenty-one states have applied the designation. In New York, nine water bodies are protected under the act including the Peconic Estuary, Lake Champlain and the Port Jefferson Harbor Complex.

According to federal statute, before naming a water body as a no-discharge zone the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determines whether available public and private pump-out boats and stations meet the current need. If the agency finds there are not enough, the petition is not granted.

According to Mr. McAllister, the number of available pump-out facilities along the South Shore Estuary is in keeping with EPA requirements. There is a ratio of 300 to 600 boats per pump-out facility, he said.

“We performed an analysis and we believe there are more than enough pump-out boats and treatment facilities to accommodate the boats in the South Shore Estuary,” the baykeeper said.

Mr. McAllister’s petition asks the DEC and EPA to make an “expeditious” review of the reserve, with the aim of enacting the designation by the start of the 2009 boating season in May.

“This is one step that isn’t extremely complicated and will, in fact, result in the elimination of a polluting source,” Mr. McAllister said. “It’s gotta help water quality, period.”

Southampton Town handled 98,000 gallons of waste from boaters this season, which runs from May to mid-October. The numbers for Brookhaven were not immediately available.

Boaters face stiff penalties if caught discharging in no-discharge zones. Those caught can be charged with pollution of the waters of the marine district, a misdemeanor. Boaters also face a fine of up to $25,000 and a maximum prison term of one year.

The state DEC declined to comment on the petition, but a spokeswoman spoke in favor of additional protections to the South Shore Estuary.

“In the past, DEC has supported no-discharge zones to help protect New York’s sensitive inshore waters,” DEC spokeswoman Aphrodite Montalvo said in an e-mail. “Though we won’t comment directly on this petition, DEC will continue to consider and evaluate all feasible options and requests including the designation of new no-discharge zones to help improve water quality in our surrounding water bodies.”

Both Southampton Town Trustee Eric Shultz and Mr. Mazzei believe that enacting a no-discharge zone in the South Shore Estuary would not cause any additional hardship on boaters. Many already use pump-out facilities, they said.

“A no-discharge zone is the next logical step that would come after our successful pump-out boat program,” which was began in Southampton Town in 1991, said Mr. Shultz.

“I hope it doesn’t cause any additional hardship for them,” Mr. Shultz continued, “but we have to look out for the health of the bay and a clean bay benefits them, too. It’s just part of being a responsible boater.”

Most boaters choose to utilize the pump-out facilities to avoid polluting open water, said Eddie Oehler, a marina operator at Windswept Marina in East Moriches. His marina accepts about 5,000 gallons annually at the facility’s pump-out station, located on Atlantic Avenue.

There are 150 boats at the marina, and about 40 are equipped with on-board toilets, he said.

“That’s why we offer a pump-out facility for the guys,” Mr. Oehler said. “It keeps the water clean.”

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