Md. receives U.S. help for stations to collect bay boaters' sewage waste

April 15, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

When fleets of majestic sailboats glide from Chesapeake Bay into Victoria Shiroky's marina, she often knows what the boaters need before they ask.

So she keeps her workers at the ready, not far from a large metal tub filled with human waste.

Draining on-board toilets and holding tanks is, after all, part of her business. The owner of the Magothy Marina in Severna Park, Ms. Shiroky was one of the first on the bay to install a clumsy "pump-out" machine at the end of her dock.

Now the federal government wants more marina owners to follow in her wake, and has given the Maryland Department of Natural Resources $1.4 million to contain sewage pollution by recreational boaters.

For the 77 marina owners with pump-out stations already in place on Chesapeake Bay, the help from Washington is long overdue. Servicing these plumbing systems gets expensive, owners argue, and the government should do more to support their environmental efforts.

"People drag their feet, and I can understand why," Ms. Shiroky said. "But it's not fair to say, 'You do it, but the rest of you can forget about it.' Everybody has to support the environment."

New risks of diseases

Studies conducted on Chesapeake Bay found that sewage discharges pose new risks of waterborne diseases such as hepatitis, typhoid and cholera, which in turn have prompted the closing of some shellfish beds and swimming beaches near marinas.

With those public health threats in mind, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year awarded Maryland the second-highest grant in its $11.7 million effort to deal with waste dumped overboard by recreational boaters. The government seeks to encourage more pump-out stations, which suck waste out of recreational boat holding tanks, and dump stations, which are used to empty portable toilets.

In Maryland, the money will be used to install 30 new pump-out stations and provide operating assistance to older stations and waste-treatment plants, said Donald O'Neill, an officer with the state's Boating Administration.

The dollars also will go toward a survey of sewage disposal habits by Maryland's recreational boaters and a new education program to improve sanitation on the seas, he said.

"Boaters have a conscious choice to make whether to pollute or not," Mr. O'Neill said. "What we're trying to do is provide them with an alternative to the over-the-side discharge of sewage."

The waste poses the most serious threats in areas with slow-flowing water, where recreational boaters tend to congregate. Despite state laws forbidding dumping in these smaller creeks and tributaries, few violators are fined, said Margaret Podlich of the environmental group Center for Marine Conservation.

Situation difficult

"If you're holding your waste on your boat, it's extremely difficult to come to shore and find a place to get rid of it and follow the law," Ms. Podlich said.

Boaters agree dumping properly can be a pain.

"It's obvious some boats out there have tanks and don't use them," said C. T. "Skip" Moyer III, executive director of the American Boat and Yacht Council, a boating trade association based in Maryland. "But it's not a criminal or blatant act on the part of the boat owner. There just hasn't been a place to have it pumped out on shore."

Aside from posing public health threats, sewage seepage also contributes to high levels of nutrients in the bay, said Elliott Finkelstein, a spokesman for Chesapeake Bay Program, a program run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the bay states. As a result, thick patches of algae grow and suffocate living plant and animal life.

Maryland praised

Environmentalists laud the state for its early efforts to control sewage by recreational boaters, and note that Maryland started to attack the program several years before the federal government.

In 1989, the state began to offer $12,500 to marina owners who installed pump-out stations, Mr. O'Neill said. To encourage boaters to use the stations, the state forbids those marinas from charging more than $5 dollars per pump-out, he said.

That money was critical for Ms. Shiroky, who nearly sent her pump-out kit back to its makers because the installation costs were so high.

Although she says she loses money keeping her pump-outs running, she has no plans to shut down the pipes. "Unless we work together, we'll get nowhere," she said.

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