By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
It seems incongruous with the enormous effort spent cleaning up Massachusetts' coastal waterways: Hundreds of boats flushing raw or poorly treated human waste into fragile bays and inlets.
But it happens every summer day off the Bay State's busy coast, and environmental officials suspect it may be at the root of why some beaches still have high bacteria counts and "No Swimming" signs.
But the Patrick Administration is intent on discontinuing the practice. Under a proposal to the US Environmental Protection Agency, boats would be prohibited from discharging all sewage - including treated waste - off the coast of the Upper South Shore in Scituate, Marshfield and Cohasset and in the North and South Rivers. Related efforts to authorize NDAs are currently under way for Salem Sound, Cape Cod Bay, and Boston Harbor.
"Governor Patrick’s goal is ultimately to make all of the Commonwealth’s coastal waters No Discharge Areas, and this is a big step toward that goal,” said Ian Bowles, Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and the Environment.
Most boaters want to do the right thing and abide by established federal law that prohibits the dumping of untreated waste within three miles of shore. But it is legal to release the waste after it has been treated, and environmentalists say it's become apparent the onboard cleaning systems do not do an adequate job and are a far cry from the scrubbing that waste gets in a sewage treatment plant. They also add that there are also boaters too lazy or ignorant of the law who dump untreated waste.
Bacteria in water can lead to contaminated shellfish beds, unsafe swimming and can contribute to harmful algal blooms.
If approved by the EPA, this would be the Commonwealth’s ninth No Discharge Area (NDA). NDAs already protect the coastal waters of Plymouth, Kingston, Duxbury, and Harwich; Buzzards Bay; Waquoit Bay in Falmouth; Three Bays/Centerville Harbor in Barnstable; Chatham’s Stage Harbor; Wellfleet Harbor; and coastal waters of Nantucket from Muskeget Island to Great Point.
At 54 square miles, the new NDA would be the third largest in the Commonwealth, encompassing two National Natural Landmarks (North and South Rivers) and covering an area that supports nearly 3,000 commercial and recreational boats.
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