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Rules of the Road: Plan for extra sewage before it hits the fan

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Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake Desverges

With the planned races for the America’s Cup in Bermuda this spring and summer, many yachts are planning to visit this small island community. With such an influx of people, it naturally causes a potential burden on the local environment.

The discharge of raw sewage into the sea can create a health hazard. While in coastal areas, sewage can also lead to oxygen depletion and obvious visual pollution, a major problem for countries with large tourist industries.

Ironic to these regulations, the main sources of human-produced sewage are land-based such as municipal sewers or treatment plants.

Annex IV of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 relating thereto (MARPOL 73/78) contains a set of regulations regarding the discharge of sewage into the sea, ships’ equipment and systems for the control of sewage discharge, the provision of facilities at ports and terminals for the reception of sewage, and requirements for survey and certification. It also includes a model International Sewage Pollution Prevention (ISPP) Certificate to be issued by national shipping administrations to ships under their jurisdiction.

It is generally considered that on the high seas, the oceans are capable of assimilating and dealing with raw sewage through natural bacterial action, and therefore the regulations in Annex IV of MARPOL 73/78 prohibit ships from discharging sewage within a specified distance of the nearest land, unless they have in operation an approved treatment plant. As part of the rules, governments are required to ensure the provision of adequate reception facilities at ports and terminals for the reception of sewage.

The MARPOL Annex entered into force on Sept. 27, 2003, nearly 30 years after its original adoption. A revised Annex was adopted on April 1, 2004, with an entry-into-force date of Aug. 1, 2005. The revised Annex applies to new ships and yachts engaged in international voyages, of 400 gross tons and above and/or those ships and yachts certified to carry more than 15 persons.

Existing ships and yachts were required to comply with the provisions of the revised Annex IV five years after the date of entry into force of Annex IV, namely from Sept. 27, 2008. This regulation affects both private and commercially registered yachts.

Since most yachts are not specifically “certified” for the number of persons they may carry, how is the 15-person threshold calculated? For the purposes of this Annex, most flag administrations determine the number of persons by referencing either the supplements to the Cargo Ship Safety Equipment Certificate or the Certificate of Compliance to the Large Yacht Code. When a yacht does not hold either one, such as a private yacht, then the number used shall be the total number of persons for whom overnight accommodations can be provided. This total number includes both guests and crew.

For equipment, the Annex requires yachts to be fitted with either a sewage treatment plant, a sewage comminuting and disinfecting system, or a sewage holding tank.

Upon completion of a successful initial survey by the flag administration or an organization recognized by the administration (such as the classification society or nominated surveyor), the yacht will be issued an ISPP certificate. Current regulations dictate that the yacht will be re-surveyed every five years, or as determined by the administration.

The discharge of sewage into the sea will be prohibited, except when the ship has in operation an approved sewage treatment plant or is discharging comminuted and disinfected sewage using an approved system at a distance of more than three nautical miles from the nearest land; or is discharging sewage that is not comminuted or disinfected at a distance of more than 12 nautical miles from the nearest land.

Many locations, especially those in environmentally sensitive areas, are designated as Zero-Discharge Zones. This means that no effluent, raw or treated, may be discharged. Severe penalties can be levied, in addition to potential criminal charges and jail time.

For the America’s Cup, authorities are planning to verify compliance on each visiting vessel. Because many yachts are being permitted to carry an extended number of guests as race observers, the increase of sewage created and the subsequent need to treat and/or store it must be properly planned. Do not wait until the high-level alarms are blaring and figuratively “hitting the fan”.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (www.yachtbureau.org).

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