This summer, Washington could become one of the first states in the nation to begin strictly regulating the amount of copper pollution that boatyards can flush down the drain and into Puget Sound and other waters.
Environmentalists hail it as an important victory in the more than decade-long effort to protect Northwest salmon and other marine organisms from the toxic effects of copper, a common component in most antifouling boat paints.
But some boatyards fear the proposed regulations go too far, cost too much and could eventually put some of them out of business. Meeting the new copper limits will require most yards to install expensive water treatment systems—during an economic downturn when many of them are struggling just to make ends meet.
“On my pessimistic days, I’m not sure what the future of boatyards will be 10 years from now,” said Larry Crockett, executive director at the Port of Port Townsend, which operates one of the largest boatyards in the state. “There might not be a lot.”
But the Puget Soundkeepers Alliance (PSA), which has led the effort to crack down on pollution from boatyards and other waterfront industries, doesn’t view the proposed regulations as a choice between healthy businesses and a healthy environment. Both are possible if done right, said Sue Joerger, executive director of PSA.
“We don’t want boatyards to go away,” she said. “We just want to make sure we have viable boatyards and have viable water quality too.”
Copper is a problem in boatyards because it so common in antifouling paint used on boat bottoms. Sanding, pressure washing and scraping that is often required to prepare boat bottoms for painting can release significant amounts of copper, which eventually makes its way into storm water drains.
Copper is tremendously effective in preventing barnacles and other marine life from attaching to boat bottoms, but it can have a devastating effect on salmon and other marine wildlife.
The battle to contain copper pollution in boatyards has been going on for years. Most yards today take steps such as using vacuum sanders, tarps and brooms to capture and contain dust from bottom work.
“The difference from 50 years ago to today in how we do business is dramatic,” said Scott Anderson, owner of CRS Marine, which operates three boatyards around Puget Sound. “We get it and we are trying really hard to do things right.”
Even so, the amount of copper pollution flowing into Puget Sound and other waters from boatyards has alarmed environmental regulators.
Boatyards have been required to monitor the amount of copper and other pollutants in their stormwater for more than a decade. Tests were routinely showing copper concentration at levels 100 times higher than what studies suggest is safe for marine organisms, and sometimes as much as 1,000 times higher.
“There was a sense that, my god, we have to do something,” Joerger said.
Proposal comes under fire
That something was a 2005 proposal by the state Department of Ecology to limit the amount of copper and other dangerous metals, such as zinc, allowed in boatyard runoff.
Copper pollution is measured in parts per billion, or ppb, and the Ecology department proposed limiting it to 229 ppb for boatyards on saltwater and 77 for those on the freshwater ship canal in Seattle. The proposal was not warmly welcomed.
The Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA), which represents boatyard owners, appealed the proposal, arguing that it went too far. The PSA countered with an appeal, arguing they didn’t go far enough. The two sides squared off before the state’s Pollution Control Hearings Board and the NTMA lost.
In an effort to settle the dispute, the NMTA agreed to work with the Soundkeepers and the DOE to set copper limits based on the results of real-world tests of treatment systems at three boatyards. The resulting agreement led to the regulation slated to take effect this summer.
It limits copper discharge to an average of 14 ppb per year, with a cap of 29 ppb for any single sample—much stricter than what was originally proposed.
In a letter to boatyard owners, NMTA President Michael Campbell said that business as usual at boatyards would have to end.
“No amount of effort has made this problem go away and I’m not sure that we really want to treat this as a ‘problem’,” Campbell wrote. “As an industry, we want to support efforts to clean up our environment because we (more than most industries) know that clean water and environmental stewardship is critical (sic) a part of boating and thus the success of our industry.”
Big bite for boatyards
But the new agreement didn’t sit well with many boatyard owners. Meeting the copper pollution regulations will require almost all of them to install expensive additional water treatment systems. The Department of Ecology estimates it could cost an average boatyard between $400,000 and $900,000 to install, operate and maintain a treatment system over 15 years.
Boatyards could face fines of as much as $10,000 every time a test shows they have exceeded the copper limit. And they could be subject to lawsuits for violations.
Anderson, owner of CSR Marine and a member of the NMTA’s boatyard committee, said the new regulations put him in a tough position. As a boater, he supports efforts to keep the region’s waters clean and healthy. But he worries that the new regulations unfairly target boatyards at a time they can least afford it.
“PSA picked us because we were small and disorganized and we are practice run (for larger industrial polluters),” said Anderson. “I like these guys and I support what they are doing—we all are a bunch of old hippies—but we also want to earn a living and we have kids who want jobs.”
Joerger says her organization hasn’t singled out boatyards, but has been aggressive in pushing many waterfront industries to curb pollution. She called the agreement with the NMTA a model for balancing the needs of businesses and the environment.
“We wanted to make sure the boatyards were set up for success and we wanted to make sure it was achievable and reasonable,” she said. “This process gave me hope that if we roll up our sleeves and leave the rhetoric behind, we could solve some problems on the ground.”
The Port of Port Townsend invested $15 million to expand and update its yard in the late 1990s, installing a new storm water treatment system and equipment designed to reduce pollution. Crockett said the yard is struggling to meet the 239 ppb standard originally proposed—much less than the 14 ppb DOE is now considering.
The yard has received a $300,000 grant to install and test new water treatment technology, but it will be at least 18 months before managers will know if it will be effective enough to meet the new copper standards.
“We just don’t think they are ready to go either from a science basis or an economic basis,” Crockett said. “If we are having a hard time, everyone else is probably having an even harder time.”
Hard times, hard choices
Joerger said she is sympathetic to the economic concerns of boatyards and is willing to consider measures that could give struggling yards more time to comply with the new regulations. Those discussions will come when the DOE finishes an economic impact study, due at the end of April, which is the final step before the new limits go into effect.
“I totally understand the dilemma and that’s why we worked long and hard with the NMTA to figure out the solution,” Joerger said. “The only thing we didn’t figure on was the economy tanking.”
Joerger notes that even during the economic recession, some boatyards aren’t waiting to take action.
Seaview Boatyard has spent more than $400,000 installing treatment systems at three of its four locations in Seattle and Bellingham. Canal and CRS boatyards have taken similar steps. Phil Riise, Seaview’s president, said he saw the handwriting on the wall and decided it was better to get ahead of the new regulations.
Seaview works on about 3,500 to 4,000 boats annually at its yards. Some of the costs of its new treatment systems will be passed on to boat owners in the form of a $75 environmental charge. While Riise said he would have rather invested the money in equipment that would help his yard make more money, he has no regrets.
So far, the systems have reduced copper significantly, although only one of the yards met the proposed standard in recent tests. Still, Riise is proud that at Seaview West in Ballard, copper levels fell from 4,700 ppb to 91 ppb.
“I pulled this trigger when we were a year into a recession, but I could see that this issue wasn’t going to go away,” Riise said. “But I thought it was the right thing to do and I still feel that way.”