Free Lake Union mobile pumpouts not to be so free, after all

(Photo by Jeff Barney of Citizens for a Healthy Bay)

(Photo by Jeff Barney of Citizens for a Healthy Bay)

After discussion with the Washington State Parks Clean Vessel Program and input from the Lake Union Liveaboard Association, as well as various current commercial pumpout operators on the lake, it turns out that Lake Union will not be getting free pumpout service from Terry and Sons Mobile Marine Pumpout Service after all.

Under a first-of-its-kind in Washington grant from the Clean Vessel Act (CVA), administered by the State Parks department, Terry and Sons was originally contracted last September to provide free pumpouts on Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Portage Bay for a one-year term. The company is responsible for raising 25 percent of the cost of the service through donations and other private funding; the remainder of its operational costs, up to $300,000, would be covered by the federal grant money.

The service will still be provided under those terms on Lake Washington and in Portage Bay. However, after receiving feedback from concerned liveaboards and current commercial mobile pump-out service operators on Lake Union and Salmon Bay, the Parks department elected to rewrite the language of the contract to take Lake Union out of the coverage area.

The commercial pumpout operators were concerned that a free, state-funded competitor would drive them out of business, while liveaboard boaters were concerned both with the potential continuity of service and particular language in the federal law that could restrict the type of accommodations known locally as “house barges” from receiving pumpouts from the free service. If the free pumpout service drove commercial operators out of business, barge owners worried, there would be no options left for them at all.

Terry and Sons, under the guidance of owner Terry Durfee, substantially restructured their operation in order to take on the free pumpout service, converting to a not-for-profit entity, and surveying two new pumpout vessels to be purchased on the East Coast and shipped out. A free slip was donated by Newport Yacht Basin for mooring the pumpout boat to help get the service off the ground. Durfee himself put in for a leave of absence from his position at Seattle’s Department of Transportation to devote more time to the business.

But Parks decided to restrict the territory Terry and Sons could cover after feedback from commercial operators and members of the liveaboard community. And Lake Union is no longer under immediate consideration for expansion of the free service. Durfee was forced to discontinue service on Lake Union even for pre-existing customers.

“The live-aboard community now has a better understanding of what we were trying to accomplish and we have a better understanding of their situation as well,” said Parks CVA administrator Al Wolslegel. “We will continue to communicate with all parties but for now our emphasis is in areas other than Lake Union and Elliott Bay.”

Mitch Leupold, owner of the commercial pumpout service SS Head, might best be described as conflicted about the compromise.

“I’m pretty happy with what they decided to do. They could have come in and squashed us,” Leupold said. A consultation with a lawyer told him he could fight the subsidized encroachment, but that it would be expensive and time-consuming. The process by which it all happened still bothers him, however. The existing services should all have been consulted by the state and other solutions explored before such a sweeping change was introduced, he believes. Leupold contends that there are more cost-effective solutions to the problem that weren’t even discussed.

The problem, however, was essentially confined to Lake Washington in the first place, where the widely dispersed moorages make it extremely difficult to operate a financially feasible private mobile service. Leupold says he attempted to make a go of it on Lake Washington in the past but that it didn’t work out; Terry and Sons was struggling to service that area before becoming a nonprofit entity and taking the grant, despite charging generally higher rates.

Lake Union, Portage Bay, Salmon Bay, and the Seattle marinas on Puget Sound are a different story. The high concentrations of liveaboards and boats in a relatively small area makes it possible for commercial operators to efficiently serve the demand there.

Leupold is more or less satisfied with the contract revision, although he says that he and other commercial operators on the lakes have lost customers in the process. He, and others, point out that even after the revision, taxpayers remain on the hook to pay for service of an area that includes some of the wealthiest yacht clubs in the state. Moreover, he says, the damage has already been done.

“Nobody complained about what we were charging [before],” he said. “Now, everybody is asking me about free pumpouts. Free pumpouts sound great, but it’s never free.”

5 Responses to Free Lake Union mobile pumpouts not to be so free, after all

  1. Dwight Knechtel March 30, 2014 at 10:30 pm #

    Thanks for including our picture Scott. It’s an interesting choice….

    That photo was taken by Jeff Barney of Citizens for a Healthy Bay. It’s at the entrance to Filucy Bay. We were offering free pumpouts in conjunction with CHB. It’s one way we can give back to the boating community. We pumped about 70 boats that weekend – all for free – as we have done several other times.

    The nearest offload was Olympia – a fairly long run with 2 tons of poo. There are some places in our state – like Filucy Bay – where pumping out is pretty darned important to protect shellfish beds and other sensitive areas, but mobile pumpout services are difficult and expensive to provide.

    We’ve been providing first class pumpout services for many years from Tacoma through the San Juans, but have struggled to find an efficient way to serve some areas. It’s great to see State Parks getting involved to help solve these difficult problems.

    Dwight & Jeff
    Pump Me Out

    • Scott Wilson March 31, 2014 at 7:19 am #

      It’s a great picture… I thought it did a good job of showing the natural beauty of the area together with the means of keeping it beautiful (your pump-out boats!).

      Thanks for letting me know who shot it, I’ll add the credit to the caption. There are a ton of file photos in the library here that don’t have a source, so it’s good to be able to check another one off the list!

  2. Andre March 30, 2014 at 4:08 pm #

    NYBA doesn’t give him a slip for free. Terry docks his boat their (as he has for a long time) and NYBA is one of several entities contributing to the 25% of his private costs he had to raise to get this free service off the ground. We obviously get really good pump out service from Terry since his boat is right in our marina. But NYBA doesn’t own any slips – Terry rents from one of the slip owners just like someone else.
    Scott, if you have any questions on that send me an email.

    • Scott Wilson March 30, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

      Hi Andre… I will follow up with you by email also. This may just be semantics, but the quote I have in my notes directly from Terry is “Newport yacht basin is donating a slip” and that was also repeated in substantially similar terms by another source. Maybe what they meant was NYBA was donating an amount the designed to cover the slip rental.

      • Aaron Barnett September 13, 2014 at 2:53 pm #


        Just read this.

        The primary source of funding or this is Sport Fish Restoration Trust Fund — a tax on recreational fishing tackle, gas, licenses and inter alia.

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