EPA moves to protect California coasts from sewage dumping

The EPA is trying to limit how often you'll see this sign.

Jared Blumenfeld told the Guardian that his son, who is in the sixth grade, was grossed out when he found out what his dad had been working on recently -- crafting a new rule that would ban ships from dumping sewage into California’s coastal waters. The youngster quite sensibly expressed disbelief that up until now, such a thing hadn’t been adequately dealt with.

Blumenfeld, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 9 Administrator and former director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, signed a new rule on Aug. 25 establishing a No Discharge Zone for vessel sewage in California marine waters. The rule, which will become effective next year, places an enforceable ban on dumping treated and untreated sewage into coastal waters up to three miles offshore that will apply to cruise ships and major commercial vessels. “It will prevent up to 20 million gallons of sewage from going into coastal waters,” Blumenfeld explained, citing EPA estimates.

The No Discharge Zone will cover 1,624 miles of coastline, including major islands and tidally influenced bays, estuaries, and rivers, making it the largest protection zone of its kind nationwide.

A Clean Water Act ban on vessel discharges of untreated sewage already exists off the coast of California, and International Maritime Organization rules currently prohibit dumping treated or untreated sewage up to three miles offshore, and untreated sewage up to 12 miles offshore. However, the EPA's new rule has teeth thanks to the introduction of a key player: The U.S. Coast Guard. The maritime arm of the Department of Homeland Security “has a very hands-on approach” to enforcement, Blumenfeld explained, and suggested that the Coast Guard's involvement could go a long way toward ensuring compliance.

The creation of this new, enforceable rule has been in the works for nearly half a decade, but the process was slow going. “This administration came on board and said, let’s take some action and move this forward,” Blumenfeld said.

Unchecked sewage discharges have impacted beaches all along California’s coast, presenting health hazards and occasionally prompting beach closures. Statewide, 40 percent of beaches monitored in 2009 experienced advisories for exceeding water-quality standards due to pathogens found in sewage. In San Francisco, more than 85 percent of the beaches had advisories, likely a byproduct of the thousands of passengers aboard roughly 60 densely-packed cruise ships and 2,000 cargo ships coming into the San Francisco Bay each year. No one can pinpoint exactly what quantity of the sewage that is released is treated, or untreated, Blumenfeld noted.

Beachgoers aren’t the only ones impacted by harmful pathogens in organic waste. Inland waters such as those found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta provide spawning grounds for important fishery species including striped bass, California halibut, white sea bass, herring, and various types of salmon. Coastal waters, meanwhile, serve as key habitat for kelp forests, which -- in addition to providing refuge for many kinds of marine life -- are routinely harvested for use in products like cosmetics or ice cream. Other species supported in coastal waters include sea urchin, squid, abalone, spiny lobster, California halibut, Pacific mackeral, rockfish, and several kinds of crab. Sewage is one of many different varieties of pollution that can impact inland and coastal waters in California.

While the EPA’s newly established No Discharge Zone signifies an important step forward in the realm of marine conservation, it’s still just one piece of the puzzle. Once the rule is implemented, cruise ship operators will likely opt to discharge their sewage outside of the three-mile protection zone, free of charge. To discourage these discharges farther out at sea, a whole new rulemaking process would probably have to be set in motion banning oceangoing vessels from discharging any sewage anywhere, and requiring docks to have infrastructure for ships to pump out when they come into port. No such requirement currently exists.

The theory behind allowing sewage discharges outside the No Discharge Zone is that waste is more effectively diluted in greater oceanic depths farther off the coast. But a sixth grader would probably tell you that at the end of the day, it still doesn’t remove the estimated 20 million gallons of sewage from the ocean.