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The Department of Ecology, with support from other state agencies, has formally requested that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protect Puget Sound by making it a no-discharge zone for vessel sewage.

The move would prohibit commercial and recreational vessels from releasing sewage into Puget Sound.

The Sound’s shellfish beds, swimming beaches and protected areas are especially vulnerable to vessel sewage. The sewage discharged contains relatively high concentrations of bacteria and viruses that can remain active even several miles or hours after entering the water.

“Washington has made a tremendous investment in the protection and restoration of Puget Sound,” said Ecology Director Maia Bellon, the agency that is leading the request. “This designation is an important piece of our strategy, and is a necessary step forward for one of our state’s most prized ecological treasures.”

The no-discharge zone would be the first in Washington and the Northwest. The EPA has established more than 90 such zones in 26 states.

Federal law currently allows vessels to discharge sewage through devices that have limited treatment capabilities within three miles of shore. They may discharge untreated sewage if they are beyond three miles of shore. A no-discharge designation would prohibit the discharge of any sewage – treated or untreated – from any vessel in Puget Sound no matter how far from shore.

Today, most of Puget Sound’s 156,600 recreational and commercial vessels with on-board toilets have sewage holding tanks and use pump-out stations, or wait to discharge more than three miles from shore. Roughly 2 percent of vessels - about 215 commercial and 2,000 recreational – with limited treatment systems would need to add holding tanks.

Smaller boats – without treatment or holding tanks – are already prohibited from discharging sewage within three miles of shore.

“Sewage released from boats puts bacteria and viruses directly into Puget Sound waters, making shellfish in some areas unsafe to harvest,” said John Wiesman, secretary of the state Department of Health, which operates the program that ensures Washington’s shellfish are safe to eat. “Once a no-discharge zone is in effect, we expect to open more than 700 acres of shellfish areas near moorages for commercial and recreational harvesting.”

Washington leads the country in production of farmed clams, oysters and mussels with an estimated $270 million total economic contribution. This action is a recommendation of the Washington Shellfish Initiative.

The no-discharge zone designation is a near-term action on the Puget Sound Action Agenda.

“This designation is an important tool in recovering Puget Sound,” said Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “It supports one of the region’s key strategic initiatives – restoring and re-opening shellfish beds. It also helps achieve both environmental and economic recovery outcomes.”

The Partnership is the state agency leading the region’s collective effort to restore and protect Puget Sound. It coordinates the Action Agenda, a regional recovery plan, by working with hundreds of partners – governments, tribes, scientists, businesses, nonprofits and others.

“Today, we affirm our commitment to the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem – the heart of our state’s economy and way of life,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. “Declaring our sparkling Sound a no-discharge zone means we will no longer allow the efforts we’ve made to protect this critical waterway – efforts largely funded by publicly owned shellfish beds – to be needlessly poisoned.”

The state’s petition follows more than four years of research and discussions with organizations representing vessel owners, business and environmental organizations, port districts, and other interests. The state examined how pathogens from vessel sewage can affect Puget Sound’s water quality and key resources, such as shellfish harvesting.

Puget Sound is ready with 173 pump-out stations at 102 locations for recreational boaters, plus 15 commercial pump-outs, 21 mobile pump-out boats, and pumper trucks.

Ecology and its partners are using grant funding to add even more commercial pump-outs.

The Washington State Parks Commission provided federal clean vessel act funding to establish most of the state’s pump-out facilities.

Owners of commercial vessels – including tug boats, fishing vessels, and small passenger carriers – face significant costs to replace sanitation devices with holding tanks. Ecology is asking EPA to allow five years for these changeovers to occur. It would be the longest phase-in ever provided for a new no-discharge zone. Most of these vessels undergo major maintenance at shipyard dry docks every few years.

“Our proposal gives this important sector time to dovetail these replacements with their major maintenance schedule and to spread their costs,” said Ecology’s Bellon. “Five years should help the 2 percent of Puget Sound vessels that need to make retrofits.”

If approved by EPA, Ecology and other agencies would begin implementing the zone’s no-discharge requirement with education and technical assistance. These efforts would be augmented, as needed, by law enforcement in response to violations.

The zone of protection from vessel sewage would encompass 2,300 square miles and include all marine waters east of New Dungeness on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, plus Lake Washington, Lake Union and the waters that connect them to Puget Sound.

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