Under the Clean Water Act, states may request EPA to establish vessel sewage no-discharge zones if necessary to protect and restore water quality. In 2006, following passage of three state statutes designed to reduce the effects of vessel discharges to its waters, the State of California asked EPA to establish the sewage discharge ban. After releasing the proposed rule in 2010, EPA considered some 2,000 comment letters from members of the public, environmental groups, and the shipping industry before finalizing the regulation.

"California's economic health is tied to the health of our oceans and beaches," said Charles Hoppin, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. "Pollution from cargo and cruise ships directly threatens public health, marine life and our economy. This led to our request to declare the whole coastline a no discharge zone so that we could provide equal water pollution protection along our precious coastline."

Today’s prohibition is unprecedented in geographical scope. In contrast to prior no-discharge zones under the Clean Water Act, which apply in very small areas, the new ban applies to all coastal waters out to 3 miles from the coastline and all bays and estuaries subject to tidal influence. Other California no discharge zones for ten bays and marinas remain in effect for all vessels.

“Big ships make for big pollution but unfortunately, responsible disposal of sewage from ships hasn’t always been a given in California,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels project director at Friends of the Earth. “The actions taken today by the U.S. EPA, the State of California, and the thousands of Californians who supported the Clean Coast Act mean that cruise lines and the shipping industry can no longer use California’s valuable coastal and bay waters as their toilet.”

Consistent with the State’s request, today’s prohibition applies to all passenger ships larger than 300 tons and to all other oceangoing vessels larger than 300 tons with sewage holding tank capacity.

“The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association shares the concern for protection of California’s marine environment. Our member companies are dedicated to the facilitation of trade while also minimizing any associated environmental impacts,” said John Berge, Vice President of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.

In addition to today’s discharge prohibition, other vessel sewage discharges will continue to be regulated under existing Clean Water Act requirements, which generally require sewage to be treated by approved marine sanitation devices prior to discharge. The State is also continuing to implement and strengthen other efforts to address sewage discharges from smaller vessels, including recreational boats, to state waters.

EPA’s action complements our ongoing ocean protection efforts including strengthening the existing Vessel General Permit, development of a Vessel General Permit for smaller vessels, and our efforts to reduce marine debris such as plastics and other human-generated debris. The California No Discharge Zone final rule will be submitted today to the Federal Register and be published within 3-5 business days.