Violations Don’t Mean Lots of Vessels Are Spewing Septic Waste, Harbormaster Says

The pump-out boat operated by the Southampton Town Trustees and dedicated to Sag Harbor, skippered by Tony Lombardi. Peter Boody photo

It may have raised some eyebrows last week when Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, reading aloud Harbormaster Robert Bori’s activity report for July at the August 13 Sag Harbor Village Board meeting, reported that his office had inspected 13 vessels for compliance with the no-septic-discharge requirements of the Village Code, federal law and the state Navigation Law and that seven had been cited for violations.

The harbormaster conducted the “marine sanitary device inspections” with the East End Marine Law Enforcement Task Force. All the violations were for failure to have waste discharge valves properly closed and secured. The entire Peconic Bay estuary is a no-discharge zone, where it is not only illegal to discharge wastewater but to keep outflow valves open or unsecured.

Under the village code, fines for discharge violations are limited to $100.

The 53-percent non-compliance rate the harbormaster found in July is no indication of the proportion of vessels that might be illegally discharging sewage into local waters, Mr. Bori said during an interview in his office overlooking the harbor later in the week.

“The way the Navigation Law reads, the valve that goes overboard has got to be in the closed and locked position, which they weren’t,” Mr. Bori said. “That was the violation they were written for. I don’t want people thinking these yachts were all dumping overboard. I don’t think anything’s further from the truth.”

Harbormaster Robert Bori in his office at the edge of Marine Park. Peter Boody photo

He said he believes almost all skippers comply with the rules and use the free pump-out boat services offered by the Southampton Town Trustees at marinas and harbors on Peconic Bay from one end of the town to the other, from Westhampton to Sag Harbor.

One boat in the Trustee fleet is dedicated to Sag Harbor seven days a week; a second, which normally operates in the Noyac area, regularly comes to Sag Harbor on the weekends and whenever else it’s needed, Mr. Bori said. The boats can be paged for service on radio Channel 73.

Sarah Schaefer, program coordinator for the Peconic Estuary Program, noted that “there is no way to know if vessels are discharging” in the Peconic Bay system “unless they are caught in the act. We do have some information of the gallonage going into pump-out boats and pumping stations at docks, but we don’t know what percentage of the total it represents.”

Because of rising concerns about water quality, Mr. Bori said his office this season had stepped up the number of inspections it conducts for compliance with the no-discharge regulations. He has never issued violations before this year, he said. “Maybe that was the luck of the draw: we checked those boats and the valves were closed,” he said.

Statistics for the number of inspections conducted in past years were not immediately available, Mr. Bori said, because records are put upstairs into storage at the end of every season.

“Regulating marine sanitary discharges is an important and complicated issue,” commented John Parker, a member of the village’s Harbor Committee who has been outspoken about waterways regulatory issues. He helped draft a proposed law that has been stalled before the Village Board all year to set rules for the village’s outer harbor, over which the state gave the village jurisdiction three years ago.

“Based on the harbormaster’s recent report, there appears to be more of an effort this year than in the recent past to check on vessels and enforce our no-discharge laws,” he said. “The pump-out volume would suggest that most vessels are in compliance. However, only a very small number of the total number of vessels are being inspected.”

So far this summer, there have been three operations to board and inspect vessels, according to the harbormaster: the one that took place on July 20 that resulted in seven tickets for violations; another on August 4, also with the Task Force, when one violation was found among 12 boats inspected; and one on July 31, when Mr. Bori and an assistant inspected three yachts that had not been using the pump-out service and found three violations.

There are no statistics to establish an actual rate of compliance with the no-discharge rules but Mr. Bori believes illegal discharges are rare in Sag Harbor. For him, the proof is the sheer volume of sewage effluent collected by the two pump-out boats that work the waters here. Almost 93,000 gallons had been collected this season as of last week, with many weeks of the boating season still ahead. That indicates “more than a majority of boats are utilizing the service,” he said.

Over the 2017 season, the last one for which he had town-wide statistics, the pump-out boats collected 180,714 gallons of waste from vessels in six areas: Conscience Point, Hampton Bays, Mill Creek, Shinnecock Bay, Westhampton and Sag Harbor. Some 144,633 gallons, or 80 percent, came from Sag Harbor alone.

“Based on the numbers we’re pumping here,” Mr. Bori said, “I think we’re way ahead of the curve.”

“The fact that a vessel sometimes uses the pump-out boat does not mean that it never illegally discharges or that its discharge valve is properly secured,” Mr. Parker said. “Bacterial spikes in the harbor detected by water testing could well be the result of illegal discharges. What appears to be needed is a policy review to determine what level of inspection and enforcement is appropriate.”

Pump-out crews had flagged the large yachts that Mr. Bori and the Task Force inspected on July 20 for not having used their services, Mr. Bori said.

All have their own onboard wastewater treatment systems, he noted, so even if they had discharged into the harbor, their effluent would have been “pretty close” to the same high level of treatment as the effluent discharged into the harbor by the Sag Harbor sewage treatment plant, which kills bacteria and removes about 95 percent of the nitrates in the village’s wastewater.

Mr. Bori noted that many boats are moored or anchored with nobody aboard, so produce no effluent. He also questioned how much harm the effluent from smaller boats could do to local water quality “as opposed to all the houses along the waterfront, between nitrogen from the fertilizer and the older septic systems. Even if you get one or two” boats illegally discharging, “what’s a holding tank on these smaller boats:  30 or 40 gallons.

“And I think the majority of the people are utilizing the service. Even transient boats that come in will call for the pump-out boat because they know it’s a free service and it’s convenient. They don’t have to go to a dock. The boat comes to them.”

Bruce Tait of Tait Yachts in Sag Harbor, a former chairman of the village’s Harbor Committee, agreed with Mr. Bori’s view that compliance rates are high, except to say that large, modern yachts have even better sanitary treatment facilities than the municipal sewage plant.

He noted that failure to have a valve secured and locked does not mean any waste is flowing overboard. Large yachts might not use local pump-out boats, he explained, because they have “very big black water holding tanks” that can overwhelm the capacity of the boats.

“This is a very controversial subject and parts of the village are all upset” about the possibility that vessels are discharging into local waters, Mr. Tait acknowledged. But he said “anecdotally,” the evidence is that compliance rates “are going up all the time.”

The pump-out boats pump the waste they collect into a large underground holding tank at the waterfront at Marine Park, which is regularly emptied by a contractor and delivered to a treatment facility in Riverhead.