Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fidley Watch: Blivet

By Chris Philips, Managing Editor

In late November, an “informational” meeting with the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) regarding the establishment of a Puget Sound No-Discharge Zone was well attended by people representing the commercial maritime industries that operate in Puget Sound. Where the State had expected thirty people, more than 60 showed up. The tone was set about 45 minutes in, by the presenter, Amy Jankowiak with Ecology, when she snapped to the room in general, “Do you want me to leave or do you want to listen?”

The State of Washington is concerned that the levels of fecal coliform bacteria in Puget Sound are dangerous to humans. Ecology officials believe that commercial vessel traffic is a large contributor to these elevated levels. Unfortunately, as Ms. Jankowiak admitted to the assembled vessel operators, Ecology doesn’t actually have any data to back up the claim. Rather, Ms. Jankowiak explained to the group, the NDZ is needed because the State says it is.

The state’s solution is to petition the US EPA to create a No-Discharge Zone throughout Puget Sound, forbidding any discharge of waste, either treated or untreated.

The regulation will require all vessels to have a holding tank for sewage, or “black water” and will no longer allow the USCG-approved Type II marine sanitation devices carried by most vessels larger than 65 feet. This would include tugs, passenger vessels and fishing vessels.

When asked about the effect this legislation would have on the vessels calling at Puget Sound Ports, Ms. Jankowiak suggested that vessels currently utilizing approved Type II devices could simply add a holding tank to carry sewage onboard until it could be pumped out at existing shoreside treatment facilities. She seemed dismissive of industry protestations that there are currently not nearly enough existing shoreside facilities to serve the vessels affected by the rule. Ms. Jankowiak doesn’t know of any plans to increase the number of shoreside pump-out stations. Many questions were asked, including whether the State appreciated that a retrofit of a vessel for that kind of tankage would be in the $100,000 to $125,000-dollar range, if it could be accomplished at all, and would affect the tonnage of the vessel, as well as stability, cargo capacity and effective range.

“That’s the first I’ve heard of that problem,” Jankowiak said, admitting that the State hasn’t actually consulted with any shipyards or naval architects, and was unaware of stability or tonnage issues. “We’re trying to reach out to everyone we can,” she said.

The term “informational” applies to the meeting because, as was pointed out by Ms. Jankowiak, the decision to petition the EPA for the NDZ has already been made, and the “input” from the audience won’t have any bearing on the decision. Should the EPA declare the NDZ, vessel owners will be required to comply with the new regulations unless they receive an “exemption” due to unique challenges to retrofit, including engineering and certification. This exemption will only be valid until the next time the vessel is drydocked, or 3 years, whichever comes first. The State isn’t even required to have the comment period, according to Ms. Jankowiak. It is simply a courtesy Washington is providing to the stakeholders.

In reaction to the proposed NDZ, a coalition of affected stakeholders is producing a position paper with concerns that Ecology needs to address before moving forward:

Ecology needs to articulate a scientific basis for its determination that areas of Puget Sound are at ecological risk from vessels’ treated blackwater effluent.

Any proposed solution needs to be proportional to the scope of the problem and the degree of risk.

Vessels would need a fair and reasonable amount of time to retrofit their vessels with holding tanks, if necessary.

A regulatory scheme that permits onboard treatment systems that perform to best-achievable protection standards should be strongly favored and considered.

The State of Washington has moved the public comment period to the middle of this month to avoid the holiday crunch. The draft petition can be found on Ecology‘s NDZ website: http://tinyurl.com/bqm9g6d. We urge you to make your voice heard if you hold a stake in the West Coast maritime economy.

We believe the entire discussion should be tabled until Ecology has actual and reliable data. In the country’s current brittle economic conditions, the State of Washington’s baseless disruption of much of the robust West Coast maritime economy is shortsighted and destructive, with negligible, if any, environmental benefit.