A Conservation Policy Story

Today I’ll spend some time talking about the experience I’ve gained this summer regarding conservation policy. I’ll start off with an interesting policy story that I’ve learned about that involves the State of Washington’s recent attempts to regulate the use of copper-based antifouling paint through legislation. I got to know this story through my meetings with people at the Washington State Department of Ecology, and also from reading documents published by that same agency. I find this story very interesting because it highlights the unexpected ways that policy can take shape, and also the unforeseen consequences that a policy decision can sometimes lead to.

In 2011, the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5436 2011-12 into law. This new law committed Washington to phasing out the use of copper-based antifouling paint for recreational boats by 2020. This would be a dramatic change for the state’s approximately 200,000 registered boat owners, since banning copper paint would eliminate the primary means for controlling the build-up of mussels, barnacles, seaweed, tunicates, worms, and a myriad of other marine organisms that would slowly but surely attach themselves to the bottoms of their boats.

Interestingly, Senate bill 5436 was not introduced by any conservation or environmentalist organization, or by any state agency tasked with preserving water quality. Instead, it was introduced by the Northwest Marine Trade Association, an advocacy group for the recreational boating industry. Why would a boater’s advocacy group want to pass legislation to restrict the use of the most widespread antifouling tool available to recreational boaters?

The answer has to do with wastewater and stormwater runoff from boatyards and marinas where cleaning and repainting of boats occurs. The runoff from these boatyards and marinas is subject to testing by the Washington Department of Ecology, and these businesses could face fines or the loss of their operating permits if the copper concentrations in this runoff exceeded stringent thresholds. Because these businesses do a lot of cleaning and repainting of boats, and because so many boats had paint with very high concentrations of copper, it was very difficult for these businesses to keep the copper concentrations in their runoff and stormwater below these thresholds.

This is why the Northwest Marine Trade Association pushed for a ban on copper-based boat paint; if boat paints had no copper, than it would be easier for marinas and boatyards to avoid fines and keep their permits.

However, as mentioned previously, this new law presented a major challenge to boat owners; how could they prevent fouling of their boats when the most common tool would become illegal to use by 2020? The most straightforward solution would be to switch to an antifouling paint that used a biocide other than copper. There are an number of commercially available antifouling paints that use alternative biocides such as Irgarol, Tralopyril, DCOIT, or Zinc Pyrithione. These compounds were known to be effective at preventing the buildup of marine growth, but they are much less popular than copper paint, and they were used on only a small number of boats. What would be environmental impact of a wholesale switch to one of these alternative biocides?

A part of the new law specifically tasked the Washington Department of Ecology with finding out the answer to this question. The Department of Ecology was directed to research the environmental impacts of these alternate biocides and submit a report to the Washington Legislature by 2017. This report was duly submitted, and it contained a surprising conclusion: The Department of Ecology recommended that the Washington Legislature delay the ban on copper boat paint!

The Department’s research into these alternate biocides showed that they had the potential to cause serious environmental harm, and that the benefits of eliminating copper-based paint would be outweighed by the negative impacts of switching to different antifouling paints. The Washington State Legislature agreed with this recommendation, and at the moment the ban on copper-based antifouling paints is on hold, while the Department of Ecology continues it’s research into the safety of alternative antifouling methods.

This story is so interesting to me because so much of it is the opposite of what I would have expected to happen: a marine industry advocacy group proposing a ban on a widely used and popular paint, and the Department of Ecology arguing against that ban? I think it serves as an example that policy changes are not always as straightforward as they might seem.

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