Editorial: A waterfront problem that needs to be fixed

In May, as summer approached and boaters began to head out into Greenport Harbor and beyond, the village’s sewage pump-out boat was out of service due to engine trouble. The boat returned to service in early July — only to be sidelined again when a pump failed. Now, as August arrives and the end of summer is in sight, the boat remains out of service.

This is bad news.

In a village with a magnificent, deepwater harbor, with both recreation and commercial shellfishing operations in full bloom, not having a fully functioning municipal pump-out boat to remove raw sewage from boats seems like bad planning, bad luck or perhaps a sign of the village’s financial condition.

Some people who make their livelihoods on the water have seen raw sewage, and they express concern about any possible impact on water quality and oyster beds. Their worry is well-grounded.

Greenport Harbor, Sterling Creek and the entire Peconic Bay Estuary are federal and state-designated no-discharge zones. It is illegal to dump waste from a boat into the water. But, clearly, if boaters have seen waste that was dumped in the harbor, that law is not being followed.

These waters are considered pristine. Along with preserved farmland, the bays are the reason the North Fork is so extraordinary. Because of the water’s cleanliness, a number of people in recent years have launched shellfish businesses on bay bottomlands. Oysters from the Peconics are among the very best. It goes without saying that Peconic Bay scallops are known all over the world. We have greatness here.

Go to the website of the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Print out the five-page list from its oyster menu. You will see 21 varieties of oysters from Long Island — and many of them are from the East End, such as Peconic Pride, Widows Hole and Orient Point.

On Shelter Island, where concern for water quality runs deep, there is a pump-out station near the Shelter Island Yacht Club; some other marinas also provide pump-out service, as do three in Greenport. The sight of raw sewage in the harbor suggests these are not enough. There needs to be a privately owned pump-out boat that could serve as a backup for, or in addition to, the municipal boat. A private business working to make money during the summer months might do a better job at keeping a pump-out boat fully operational throughout the boating season.

Mary Bess Phillips, a village trustee whose husband, Mark, is a commercial fisherman, said she understands the concerns and wants to address them.

“The pump-out boat is a problem and, yes, we need a fix,” she said. “I have heard the complaints and I have concerns about it. It will be on my radar.”

At a recent village board meeting, Greenport resident and oyster market owner Ian Wile pointed out the obvious.

“I’m concerned for the quality of our waterfront and whether there’s a schedule or interim solution like contracting a pump-out boat from a private marina. Despite assurances the boat owners give you, if there is no pump-out boat, they are for certain going to empty their tanks, rather than wait for the Port-a-John.”

Another resident, Bill Swiskey, placed the blame back on the village.

“It boggles my mind,” he said. “We knew what condition the pump-out boat was in last year when we put it away. We knew that it needed help. How do we get to May and start the season in that condition?”