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Why it matters

The features that make Puget Sound such a stunning scenic, environmental, and economic resource also make it uniquely sensitive to pollution. Its long, narrow shape limits the circulation of water, especially in the bays and narrow inlets. Sewage from vessels can potentially affect water quality and pose a risk to public health.

There are 153,000 registered recreational vessels and 3,600 commercial vessels in the Puget Sound area. Because vessels move throughout Puget Sound, they can especially affect sensitive resources in Puget Sound such as shellfish growing areas, marine protected areas, aquatic reserves and public beaches. Such areas can be impacted by bacteria and dissolved oxygen in sewage.

Protecting shellfish resources helps safeguard public health and our economy

People can get sick from eating shellfish polluted with bacteria from boat waste discharges. When bacterial pollution makes shellfish harvest restrictions necessary, our recreational and commercial shellfish industries suffer. Even small amounts of sewage discharges over or near shellfish beds can cause enough pollution to require harvest closures. Studies and modeling have shown that pollutants from vessel discharges are typically much higher than state water quality standards. Pollutants can quickly reach sensitive resources and pose a risk to water quality and public health.

Washington needs to address vessel sewage

An NDZ connects a missing piece in the state’s Puget Sound Action Agenda and joins other larger investments in sewage treatment: on-site septic systems, stormwater management and agricultural runoff control. The Puget Sound Partnership has identified an NDZ petition as a key action for the Shellfish Restoration initiative in the Action Agenda. Federal law pre-empts states from regulating vessel sewage, but states may request an NDZ from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More than 90 NDZs exist in 26 states to address pollution problems. The proposed Puget Sound NDZ would be the first in Washington.

Boaters can help us make a difference for Puget Sound

Washington state boaters practice good stewardship of our waters. The vast majority of vessels already have holding tanks for use at pumpout facilities or to hold their sewage (blackwater) until they reach the ocean for discharge.

There are currently:

  • More than 173 stationary pumpout units.
  • In 102 locations.
  • 23 pumpout boats available for recreational vessels.
  • 16 stationary commercial pumpouts
    • 11 of these are dedicated to state ferries or the Navy.
    • Two more new pumpouts are in the works for all commercial vessels.
  • More than 140 pumper truck companies with the potential to pump commercial vessel sewage.
    • Some specialize in pumping out vessels.
    • Some mobile pumpout boats are available to commercial vessels for smaller volumes. 
This is far more than the criteria required in order to designate an area a no discharge zone. Washington proposes a phased timeline to allow certain commercial vessels that currently rely on limited treatment systems to retrofit to holding tanks.

How we got here

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that a no discharge zone can be established for Puget Sound. We went through a five year stakeholder process. 
Read the petition to EPA and Ecology's supplemental letter. EPA made an affirmative determination allowing us to move forward with a No Discharge Zone rule. 

What we're doing

We plan to take an educational approach. The public has a good track record of making informed choices to change practices when they understand the problem and the actions they need to take. In the proposed zone, eliminating discharges would help relieve pollution pressure on Puget Sound as efforts to curtail other pollution sources continue. With the NDZ, state and local agencies will be able to ensure that all mariners prevent their vessels from discharging sewage into Puget Sound.

How would an NDZ affect vessel owners?

Most vessels will require no changes at all, but some will.

Recreational vessels

There are approximately 153,000 registered recreational vessels in the Puget Sound area. Ninety-five per cent have holding tanks or no toilets, and do not discharge. Therefore, they can comply with the NDZ with no changes. There are about 2,000 to 4,000 recreational vessels that have a federally-approved treatment system called a Type I or Type II Marine Sanitation Device (MSD).

These need conversion to holding tanks (Type III MSD). Recreational boat holding tanks typically cost about $500 plus installation costs. A typical operating fee to pump out a recreational boat tank is $0-$25. There are currently more than 173 pumpout units in 102 locations, and 21 pumpout boats available for recreational vessels, far more than the criteria for NDZ designation. And more pumpouts continue to be added to popular boating locations.

Commercial vessels

In Puget Sound, there are approximately 3,600 commercial vessels. These include bulk and auto carriers, container ships, cruise ships, tugs, refrigerated carriers, roll-on roll-offs, tankers, excursion vessels, government vessels, ferries, workboats and commercial fishing vessels. Approximately 94 per cent of the commercial vessels have holding tanks or no toilets/no discharge. That leaves about 215 commercial vessels based in Puget Sound with Type I or Type II treatment systems which would need to add holding capacity.

These include 100 tugs, 100 fishing (estimated out of 350), three NOAA research ships, and six to eight small passenger cruise ships. Commercial vessels that pump out their sewage use stationary pumpouts (such as the ferries, government vessels and some smaller commercial vessels), or mobile pumpouts, pumper trucks or discharge out at sea. Additional pumpout capacity is in the process of being added to provide additional options for commercial vessels. Tug operators have indicated that it would cost $161,000 to add a holding tank. Costs for the other vessels are unknown at this time.

Pumpout facilities for commercial vessels


There are currently eight stationary pumpouts dedicated to Washington State Ferries (WSDOT ferries), three dedicated to U.S. Navy vessels, one dedicated for the Victoria Clipper vessels, one for the department of Corrections to McNeil Island and three at the Port of Bellingham cruise terminal area, one of which is used for Alaska Marine Highway vessels and two other pumpouts that can serve other commercial vessels. Two more commercial pumpouts are being installed, one in Seattle for all commercial vessels and another at the Port of Bellingham mostly for fishing vessels.

Mobile boats

Mobile pumpout boats provide services to recreational and some commercial vessels. There are 23 mobile pumpout vessels, which primarily service recreational boats, but some have serviced commercial vessels such as charter boats, fishing vessels, USCG vessels and passenger vessels. The boats have a capacity between 40 gallons and 450 gallons. There is also interest from some companies to expand to larger capacity if the need for commercial pumpout increases. Geographically, the mobile pumpout boats cover vast areas as they are able to move to vessels, though some stay within their marina or harbor area.

Pumper trucks

There are a number of companies that specialize in commercial marine work and pumpout commercial vessels holding tanks. The companies currently pump sewage from a variety of vessels including tugs (Harbor Island and other areas), fishing, Navy and USCG vessels, some smaller cruise ships and other vessels. For some larger vessels that are there for a period of time, some companies put a poly tank on the dock and then pump that out. Vessels are set up with camlock type fittings and also have universal fittings for larger vessels. Hoses can be extended to reach vessels.

In addition to these companies that specialize in pumping out vessel sewage, there are approximately 140 licensed or certified pumper truck companies in the Puget Sound area that primarily pumpout septic tanks, but can also potentially pumpout vessel sewage (many doing so currently). About half of those contacted do or are willing to pumpout commercial vessel sewage at a variety of docks and ports, with an occasional challenge of load. County health departments each have their own processes for certifying and listing pumper trucks that service their county.

Pumper Trucks in the Puget Sound Area
County Number of Pumper Companies
Clallam 4
Island 18
Jefferson 7
King 41
Kitsap 17
Pierce 42
San Juan 9
Skagit 18
Snohomish 25
Whatcom 13
Total 194
Some companies service more than one county. There are about 140 different pumper companies in the Puget Sound area.