Coast Guard looks into reported schooner sewage discharge in Rockport Harbor
ROCKPORT — Goodie’s Beach at Rockport Harbor was closed for several days last weekend, following a reported spill of raw sewage from a schooner departing the town dock Friday, July 13. The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment, in Belfast, has been looking into the incident this week and depending on its findings, will consider enforcement action.
Town Manager Rick Bates informed the Rockport Select Board July 18 in an email, confirming that the discharge had occurred, and that municipal employees had seen it happen. The employees followed process and notified the Maine Dept. of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The town immediately closed Goodie’s Beach, which is popular with families in the summer, swimming and picnicking, and employees told the public to stay out of the water. They also posted warnings at the beach.
Bates was firm in his memo to the Select Board that the employees witnessed the schooner leaving the dock July 21, and immediately spoke with the captain.
“He admitted that the valve was in the wrong position and presumably when they pumped their bilge (which they always do before departing), unbeknownst to him, they accidently pumped some of their holding tank,” said Bates, in his memo.
Bates told the board: “The discharge took place at nearly the top of a 10.5 tide which drained the harbor down to a minus 1 foot tide. A lot of water went out and any discharge would have dramatically dissipated as a result of that tide change.”
He also said: “DEP would be responsible for doing a sample, if they were concerned. They did not do a sample. They chose to take their sample on the normal day, which was Monday. They did a sample and we are awaiting the result of that sample. That is expected some time later today. The Coast Guard took the report, but was not planning any action initially, but did come down and take a statement....”
Bates said further: “Being federal waters, we have no enforcement power other than to file a report.”
He said the harbor master reports every summer of oil and holding tank discharges that she notices.
“And there are several during the course of the summer,” he said. “In most cases, we no not know the source of the discharge. In this case we do. Rarely, does any reporting result in any response from DEP or the Coast Guard.”
Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment Petty Officer First Class Alex Olbert said July 20 that a Coast Guard enforcement action differs from an investigation, the latter of which is relegated to oil and hazardous waste pollution, or accidents aboard vessels, as well as groundings and sinkings.
Olbert said the Belfast Marine Safety Detachment is the process of determining whether Coast Guard action will occur.
“We may proceed with enforcement,” he said.
Citing privacy laws, he declined to discuss details about the vessel.
He cited federal regulations concerning vessel sewage discharge in U.S. waters, which requires securing devices that prevent discharge of treated or untreated sewage.
The Environmental Protection Agency prohibits holding tank discharge anywhere in waters three miles from shore, and specifies that dumping is prohibited entirely in West Penobscot Bay.
The EPA maintains in the Federal Register that there are “adequate facilities for the safe and sanitary removal and treatment of sewage from all vessels are reasonably available for the coastal waters of Camden, Rockport, Rockland and portions of Owls Head.”
Rockport provides free sewage disposal service from the town dock. The town originally received a DEP grant to provide the service and continues it at municipal expense. Camden has a courtesy pump-out boat (tips accepted), and Rockland provides sewage disposal service at no charge.
Because the schooner in question has a holding tank with a secure locking mechanism, the Coast Guard is the entity to query the crew aboard the boat as to what happened.
The Ocean Dumping Act, under the criminal provisions of the Clean Water Act, governs discharge violations and fines can be steep.
Olbert encourages mariners to use the free pump-out services, especially if they are in West Penobscot Bay harbors, and to be aware of laws governing sewage in U.S. waters. He said his office has received few complaints over recent years, hoping that indicates that mariners and sailors are more diligent in tending to their holding tanks.
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