My summer fellowship with the Oregon DEQ began with a very general goal of reducing the environmental impacts of copper-based antifouling paint in Oregon. It was abundantly clear that excessive copper concentrations can be harmful, and even fatal to aquatic organisms, as I learned from the many research articles I read on the subject. Also clear was the connection between copper boat paint and elevated levels of copper. But what would be the most effective way to address this issue? What could I do over my 10-week internship that could have a tangible benefit for the DEQ, and for the health of my state?
There were a number of potential options: one way would be to develop surveys designed to understand boat owner’s attitudes towards copper paint and how widespread its use was among recreational boaters. Another possibility would be an outreach effort to marinas and boatyards, providing them with information about the harmful effects of copper in the environment, and suggesting alternative antifouling methods. I finally settled on a plan to put together a water testing program that could help to fill major gaps in knowledge about the actual concentrations of copper in Oregon’s waterways. Collecting empirical data on copper concentrations at sites of high copper paint use, such as marinas or yacht clubs, would be critical in establishing a clear and unambiguous link between the use of these paints and harmful levels of copper in the water.
Once I settled on the plan for a copper testing program, a whole host of other questions cropped up: How many sites should be tested to get a useful picture of copper concentrations around the state? How many tests should be performed at each site to ensure the results were statistically significant? Should we test for copper in the water column, or the sediment? How could we convince the owners of marine facilities to let us perform the tests? Most importantly, how would all this testing be paid for?
At this point, I was a few weeks into my fellowship, and I felt like the deeper I got into the subject the more questions I had. The answers to these questions came slowly, through many days of reading articles, reading the copper paint regulations from Washington and California, talking with people on Zoom or the phone, writing emails, making new connections and talking with more people, learning new facts that upset assumptions I didn’t even realize I had been making, and reformulating my plan again and again. The result felt like weeks of hard work with nothing really to show for it.
Except that’s not quite true. Even though not a single water sample has been taken and sent to the lab, something useful has still happened: I’ve gradually developed an understanding of a complex and nuanced subject. A subject with a wide array of interlinking, often competing or contradictory, social, economic, chemical, biological, and environmental components. As one of the people I talked to last week said, after all these weeks I’m still in the “development stage,” of my project, and that’s okay.
If there’s one takeaway I have from this summer, it’s that most of the time there’s no quick fix for “solving” environmental problems. Making a positive change is more often a long-term effort. The first step in that effort is always to get the best understanding of the problem as a whole, and I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve had this summer to experience that for myself.