The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week signed off on a California law that bars large ships from dumping sewage in coastal waters.
The rule creates a "no discharge zone" extending three miles out along California's 1,624-mile coast, instituting the nation's first statewide ban on dumping. Cleaning up the state's waters, policy makers say, will support local aquatic life and public health while minimizing beach closures and improving conditions for commercial fishing and crabbing.
"It's an economic development measure," state Senator Joe Simitian said in a conference call with reporters February 9. Simitian was the author of the anti-dumping legislation , passed initially in 2005. The bill required California to petition the federal government to enforce the provisions. The EPA's approval last week was the final step in that process.
"It's been a long time coming….but the California coast is now protected in perpetuity," Simitian said. "This is clear evidence that states and the federal government can protect the coastline."
The U.S. Coast Guard will police the rule through regular inspections, and state officials will also have some enforcement powers. The EPA estimates the requirements will cost the shipping industry no more than $4 million, most of which will be spent on expanding the size of tanks that store waste.
Federal regulators have created maritime anti-dumping zones elsewhere — most recently in Lake Ontario , in response to a New York State petition. But no zone has matched the size of California's, which the EPA estimates will prevent the annual release of about 22.5 million gallons of sewage, about 90 percent of total dumping by the thousands of ships that travel through the area every year. The ban is more comprehensive than most rules elsewhere; it applies to most ships weighing more than 300 tons and prohibits the release of treated sewage, which can still contain harmful bacteria, toxic chemicals and other pollutants.
But EPA officials acknowledge the California ban won't stop cruise ships from dumping waste into Mexican waters or along the Oregon coast, where no similar regulations exist.
"Nationally, there's been a patchwork of rules," says Jared Blumenfeld, an EPA regional administrator. "It's very difficult to implement when you have just narrow bands of water protected along the coastline."
Blumenfeld and others say they hope California's model will spark a trend of similar statewide dumping bans, narrowing gaps in the country's coastal protections — the widest of the gaps being along the Gulf of Mexico. Blumenfeld says Hawaii's waters and Washington State's Puget Sound are also good candidates for future "no discharge zones."