Water Quality:

Program Enhancements Would Better Ensure Adequacy of Boat Pumpout Facilities in No-Discharge Zones

GAO-04-613: Published: May 24, 2004. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 2004.

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Clean Water Act regulations generally prohibit boats from discharging untreated sewage but allow the discharge of treated sewage using certified marine sanitation devices. The act allows states to designate "no-discharge zones"--areas in which vessels are prohibited from discharging any sewage--if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that adequate facilities exist in such zones for the removal and treatment of sewage from vessels. In some cases, such as for drinking water intake zones, EPA makes the designation. As requested, this report assesses (1) EPA's process for determining the adequacy of facilities to remove and treat sewage in proposed no-discharge zones; (2) the extent to which EPA and the states ensure that adequate facilities remain available after designation; (3) the extent to which the Coast Guard and the states enforce discharge prohibitions; and (4) various effects of no-discharge zones, as identified by EPA, states, and localities.

EPA's process for determining whether adequate facilities are reasonably available to remove and treat sewage from boats in proposed no-discharge zones could be improved. EPA currently requires states to submit general estimates of need for facilities (known as pumpouts) in state applications for no-discharge zones, but other information that would support site-specific estimates is optional. As a result, EPA does not receive this information consistently. Moreover, EPA generally makes its determinations on adequacy without site visits to evaluate the facilities identified in the applications to ensure, for example, that they are accessible and functioning. GAO found no EPA and limited state oversight of pump-out facilities after no-discharge zones are established. The Clean Water Act does not address the monitoring of such facilities in established no-discharge zones, nor does it define a specific role for EPA after the agency has initially determined that the facilities are adequate. Because the success of no-discharge zones depends in large measure on adequate facilities, GAO believes that EPA should assess the continued adequacy of these facilities, seeking additional authority, if needed, to require periodic recertifications or reassessments. The Coast Guard limits its enforcement of no-discharge prohibitions to the three federally designated no-discharge zones; it does not enforce them in the 56 state-designated zones. While the Clean Water Act grants the Coast Guard authority to enforce in all no-discharge zones, Coast Guard's regulations exercise enforcement authority only in areas where discharges are prohibited by EPA regulations--currently the three federally designated zones. EPA and others were not aware of the Coast Guard's regulatory limitation of its enforcement authority. GAO found that states enforced in different ways, such as by issuing tickets or inspecting boats. Many states place more emphasis on boater education than on penalizing violators. Although few data are available to assess the effects of no-discharge zones, a number of EPA, state, and local officials believe that water quality and environmental stewardship have increased after designation of these zones. In addition, officials cite gallons of boat sewage pumped as evidence that no-discharge zones reduce water pollution.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Coast Guard does not intend to change its current enforcement regime due to limited resources and the practicality of enforcement of the discharge prohibitions in no-discharge zones (illegal discharges from boats may be made underwater, making it difficult to link evidence of sewage discharges to the violators. Moreover, sewage discharges may rapidly dissipate in the water before evidence of violations can be obtained.)

    Recommendation: Because of the current confusion about the Coast Guard's enforcement role for no-discharge zones, the Coast Guard and EPA should (1) meet with the relevant states to review the enforcement roles in the state-designated no-discharge zones, (2) determine whether current enforcement is adequate, and (3) clarify the respective enforcement roles in EPA and Coast Guard guidance and, if appropriate, revise federal regulations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2004, EPA said that the agency has begun discussions within headquarters and with regional offices concerning possible revisions to guidance on establishing no-discharge zones that would include addressing recommendations in the report. EPA concluded that the statute (Clean Water Act) is silent on whether anyone can change the designation after EPA has approved it. For example, EPA said, the statute does not give EPA the authority to de-list an NDZ or otherwise modify the designation. Therefore, EPA has asked the states to conduct follow-up in the NDZs to ensure continued adequacy of the pumpout facilities and dump stations. EPA provided this guidance to the regions in conference calls.

    Recommendation: To ensure that pumpout and dump station facilities remain available in existing no-discharge zones, the Administrator of EPA should develop a mechanism or mechanisms to help ensure that facilities in established no-discharge zones remain adequate and available over time, seeking additional authority, if needed, to require periodic recertifications in which the adequacy and availability of facilities would be reevaluated by EPA or by reviewing periodic state assessments of the adequacy and availability of facilities in existing no-discharge zones.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2004, EPA said the agency has begun discussions within headquarters and with regional offices concerning possible revisions to guidance on establishing no-discharge zones that would include addressing recommendations in the report. In July 2008, EPA told GAO that it had implemented this recommendation by encouraging its regional offices to work with the states to carry out this recommendation. EPA provided this guidance to the regions in conference calls.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that the boaters using on-board portable toilets in no-discharge zones have adequate facilities for the safe and sanitary removal and treatment of sewage from their boats, the Administrator of EPA should require EPA's regions to also evaluate the adequacy of dump station facilities when determining whether adequate facilities for the safe and sanitary removal and treatment of sewage from all boats are reasonably available.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2004, EPA said that the agency has begun discussions within headquarters and with regional offices concerning possible revisions to guidance on establishing no-discharge zones that would include addressing recommendations in the report. In November 2005, EPA reported to GAO that EPA completed a survey to evaluate the effectiveness of NDZs in 15 coastal Great Lakes areas in 2004. They said that "an overwhelming majority" of the responding boaters and marina operators in NDZs reported favorably on the adequacy, accessibility, and functionality of pumpout facilities. In July 2008, EPA told GAO that it had further implemented this recommendation by encouraging its regional offices to work with the states to carry out this recommendation. EPA provided this guidance to the regions in conference calls.

    Recommendation: To enable EPA regions to consistently develop site-specific estimates of the need for pumpout facilities and thereby better assess the adequacy of the pumpout services in reviewing applications for no-discharge zones, the Administrator of EPA should require EPA regions to conduct site inspections to verify that the pumpout facilities identified in proposed no-discharge zone applications are available, in good working order, and accessible to boaters.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2004, EPA said that it had begun discussions within headquarters and with regional offices concerning possible revisions to guidance on establishing no-discharge zones that would include addressing recommendations in the report. In July 2008, EPA told GAO that it had implemented this recommendation by encouraging its regional offices to work with the states to carry out this recommendation. EPA provided this guidance to the regions in conference calls.

    Recommendation: To enable EPA regions to consistently develop site-specific estimates of the need for pumpout facilities and thereby better assess the adequacy of the pumpout services in reviewing applications for no-discharge zones, the Administrator of EPA should require EPA regions to obtain and consider all information needed to develop site-specific estimates of pumpout facilities to adequately support proposed no-discharge zones, such as information on pumpout fees and estimates of the number of boats in various size categories and/or those with holding tanks.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA said that enforcement coordination issues are largely dealt with at the EPA regional office level and provided two examples of such coordination that is responsive to our recommendation. One example provided was EPA Region 1's discussion of establishing Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) to clarify enforcement roles and responsibilities between EPA, the Coast Guard, and states in its 5 year plan, EPA New England No Discharge Area Implementation Plan 2005-2010. In a second example, EPA Region 4 and the Coast Guard engaged in discussions relating to enforcement of inland waters for which flow-through Marine Sanitation Devices are not allowed in Kentucky and Tennessee.

    Recommendation: Because of the current confusion about the Coast Guard's enforcement role for no-discharge zones, the Coast Guard and EPA should (1) meet with the relevant states to review the enforcement roles in the state-designated no-discharge zones, (2) determine whether current enforcement is adequate, and (3) clarify the respective enforcement roles in EPA and Coast Guard guidance and, if appropriate, revise federal regulations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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