County antes up $4 million to do its own tests for copper pollution in Marina del Rey

By Gary Walker

County officials are skeptical about copper pollution in Marina del Rey, Photo by Kate Doll

County officials are skeptical about copper pollution in Marina del Rey, Photo by Kate Doll

Los Angeles County appears to be gearing up for a fight with the state over recent copper pollution remediation mandates imposed on Marina del Rey harbor.

Unwilling to rely on a state water analysis that concludes the harbor is heavily contaminated by tiny particles of the toxic metal, the county is now ready to spend up to $4 million to conduct its own studies.

“We feel that it’s really best for everyone that we get site-specific analyses in our harbor. We need to know what level of copper is harmful,” said Carol Baker, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Dept. of Beaches and Harbors.

The $4-million request by Beaches and Harbors to fund third-party tests at various points in the marina over the next five years was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors on June 17.

Local environmentalists, however, are skeptical that the county is simply dragging its feet in an effort to delay cleanup efforts.

In February, the state-appointed Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board voted unanimously to require an 85% decrease in copper toxicity in Marina del Rey over the next 10 years.

The federal Clean Water Act empowers state agencies to limit the total maximum daily load (TMDL) of toxins in a specific body of water and to compel local jurisdictions to lower pollution levels to within those limits.

In the case of Marina del Rey, this could mean a costly dredging of the harbor and forcing boat owners to strip copper paint from the hulls of their boats and apply alternative nontoxic coatings.

Water board officials estimate that stripping and repainting would cost boat owners about $150 per foot of a watercraft’s length — about $6,000 for a 40-foot boat. County officials say the cost to boat owners could be significantly more.

County Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents Marina del Rey, has been a vocal critic of the state water board’s timeline for copper removal and its denial of a county request to delay imposing a TMDL reduction mandate for two years.

“We know that’s simply not feasible or reasonable. We were treated very rudely at the hearing, and we made an excellent scientific presentation. I’m very patient and I know how to work within the system, but if they’re not cooperative and they treat us like they did before, I’m prepared to go nuclear with this,” Knabe said during his “State of the Marina” speech in April. “Going nuclear,” he later explained, could involve a county lawsuit against the board.

Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board Executive Director Samuel Unger said the board’s decision isn’t wholly inflexible.

“The board can reopen the TMDL at any time based on new information and make appropriate adjustments,” Unger said. “We applaud the county for taking these steps.”

Baker noted that the water board’s decision was not based on site-specific studies of the harbor.

Local environmental organizations counter that there’s already plenty of evidence that the harbor is polluted and that the county should be spending on cleanup efforts rather than more studies.

“I don’t want to see additional studies used as an excuse not to implement the TMDL,” said Kirsten James, director of water quality for Santa Monica-based nonprofit Heal the Bay. “There have been plenty of studies on Marina del Rey. At this point, the county should be moving forward to limit the [copper toxin levels].”

Laura Meeker, watershed programs manager for Santa Monica-based Los Angeles Waterkeeper, cited a 2009 study by the California Environmental Protection Agency that concluded Marina del Rey had the highest level of dissolved copper levels of 23 harbors that were tested statewide.

Earlier this year, Heal the Bay and Los Angeles Waterkeeper sent a joint letter to Unger supporting the water board’s 85% copper reduction mandate and the 10-year timeline.

Water quality board representatives say the state EPA analysis points up a nexus between the cooper-based paint coating the majority of some 4,500 vessels docked in Marina del Rey and the high concentration of copper in the harbor’s waters.

Dozens of local boat owners and one boatyard owner testified before the water quality board in February that there is a lack of reasonably priced alternatives to copper-based boat paint and that switching paints could make recreational boat ownership prohibitively expensive.

Meeker countered that Los Angeles Waterkeeper has a boat anchored in Marina del Rey that switched to a non-copper-based paint in 2008.

“I was a little surprised to hear people say there were no other options to copper-based paint,” Meeker said. “There are other fleets of boats that don’t use copper, and in the end we’ve found that it saves us money.”

Baker said the county-funded studies would specifically analyze the need to reduce copper pollution related to vessels, explore which if any areas of the harbor might require some sort of dredging to remove toxic sediment and consider remediation effort costs.

The California Water Resources Control Board, which supersedes the state’s regional water boards, plans to take up the issue later this year.