It’s easy to get lost in the weeds finding out how to empty that portable 5-gallon toilet at the back of the boat. A simple Google search turns up a messy list of how-to videos, along with state and federal agency guidelines.
However, Ed Underwood, chief of the Hawaiʻi Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR), simplifies it this way: “Either you go out three miles to dump untreated sewage, or pump it into a holding facility.” It’s a rule that’s true for all states with coastal areas.
That leaves the boater and his portable toilet three options. The easiest is to find a harbor that offers a dockside sewage pumpout service. Hawaiʻi has eight harbors that offer free pumpouts for recreational boaters. Elsewhere in the Pacific, American Samoa offers private pumpout services in the port of Pago Pago; Guam offers a free service in Agat Marina, and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands is drafting plans for pumpout stations for its ports.
The other inconvenient options are to empty it at an RV dump station or to take it home and pour it down the toilet. Whatever the method of choice, never dump untreated sewage in the ocean, many boaters’ websites say.
Boaters love the coasts that they explore and will generally avoid emptying raw sewage into the sea. It’s evident in online boaters’ forums, such as The Hull Truth, where boaters post exhaustive reviews of portable toilets and other marine sanitation devices (MSDs). Forum members also share insider tips about pumpout stations in the U.S. and nearby destinations.
Bridget Trosin, coastal policy specialist at the University of Washington Sea Grant College Program, has seen a code of conduct in the boating communities she interacts with. “We’ve discovered that boaters in Washington are doing the right thing,” she says. “We eat a lot of shellfish in Washington, and we know that you don’t go to the bathroom where you know where your food is coming from.”
For some of Hawaiʻi’s nearly 12,500 registered boaters, Underwood’s simple rule will suffice. But what if you have a 12-passenger super yacht with four private toilets? What about that 1,500-passenger dinner cruise ship docked at Honolulu’s Pier 51A, or that Coast Guard cutter sailing to a national security incident?
It turns out the more you look at categories of boats and ships, the rules about what is restricted and what is allowed gets more complicated.
Keeping coastal waters clean
Generally, all U.S. boats and ships can discharge treated sewage within three nautical miles from the nearest land. To discharge untreated or raw sewage, boats need to head out farther than three nautical miles. This rule applies to recreational, commercial, and military vessels, and is mandated by section 312 of the U.S. Clean Water Act. The same law prohibits all U.S. and foreign vessels from discharging raw and treated sewage in “No Discharge Zones” to protect aquatic habitats and drinking water intake zones.
In addition to the U.S. Clean Water Act, federal agencies and states impose their own rules regarding wastewater discharges from American and foreign boats and ships. For example, the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary System prohibits the discharge of raw and treated sewage in any marine sanctuary. This applies to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, 1,400-square miles of coastal waters considered one of the world’s most important whale habitats.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Coast Guard are partners in the implementation of the Clean Water Act. The EPA works on policy and the Coast Guard on enforcement. Part of this is making sure all boats operating in U.S. waters with permanently installed toilets have appropriate and working marine sanitation devices.
Just keep it out of the water
It’s not easy to find out how many boaters or shipping companies have violated or been cited for dumping where they weren’t supposed to. One way to know is if the State of Hawai‘i Department of Health declares coastal waters unsafe to enter. But it is clear that residents want boaters to keep their waste out of the water.
Mike Moran, a Maui resident, 2022 nominee for the Outstanding Older Americans of Maui award, and co-founder of a group called “Pump, Don’t Dump,” said he found himself in 2007 swimming next to what looked and smelled like human feces. “I wanted to get closer to see, but didn’t want to get too close,” he said. Boaters told him it was indeed human waste. “This was because, at the time, there was no pump at the harbor,” he says. It took the group more than six years of calling and writing local leaders, demonstrating at street corners, and working with boat companies to get results.
“Recreational boaters are out there to have fun…That’s their primary focus, right?” Trosin said. Hawaiʻi’s focus, like Washington’s, is to keep the sewage out of the water. “We want it to not be in the water. So the safest thing to do is to have it go through a proper sewage treatment system.”
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