Boaters face penalties for hull-scrubbing that exacerbates copper pollution in Marina del Rey

By Gary Walker

Preventing the accumulation of toxic copper particles in Marina del Rey harbor has proved to be a vexing problem for Los Angeles County officials, as boats with hulls coated in copper-based paint still abound in most anchorages.

Faced with state and federal mandates to reduce copper pollution while encouraging use of alternative paints, the county’s latest legislative focus is to regulate how boats are cleaned.

In March the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a preliminary hull cleaning ordinance that would require all in-water cleanings be done by a certified professional and prohibit in-water cleaning that leaves a “visible” paint plume in the water. Those caught breaking the law would be cited for the first two offenses but could face misdemeanor criminal charges for subsequent violations. The board will soon vote on whether to make the new law permanent.

While environmentalists and sailing organizations tend to agree that alternatives to heavy metal paint will reduce contamination, specialists in boat hull cleaning caution that without proper maintenance practices in place Marina del Rey will remain among the state’s most polluted harbors.

“The issue should be using best management and cleaning practices. The issue shouldn’t be exchanging one toxin for another,” said Marlan Hoffman, president of California Marine Services Inc., which specializes in hull cleaning.

Hoffman, who spoke before the L.A. County Small Craft Harbor Commission in November on behalf of the California Professional Divers Association, advocates a multi-tiered approach.

“It’s a combination of different reduction standards, legislative action reducing copper into the water and education on how to do proper hull cleaning,” he said.

Meanwhile, the use of alternative paints has long been a source of contention among the boating community due to its increased cost burden for boat owners.

Nicole Mooradian of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors said non-biocide hull paint can cost up to four times as much as traditional copper-based paint.

“Additionally, there’s a significant one-time cost of stripping the hull, which is recommended before non-biocide paint application,” Mooradian said.

Water quality nonprofit Los Angeles Waterkeeper has a boat docked in Marina del Rey that transitioned from copper-based paint almost nine years ago, and they dismiss the notion that ditching copper paint is infeasible.

“We have ceramic paint now with algaecide, and it’s organic,” said Michael Quill, the Santa Monica-based organization’s marine programs director.

Quill noted that stormwater runoff, among the top water quality problems Los Angeles Waterkeeper is trying to address, is also a big contributor to marine pollution.

Small Craft Harbor Commissioner Dave Lumian thinks the draft ordinance is a good beginning. As a sailing instructor, he believes boaters must to be schooled in what constitutes proper certification.

“Education is about changing behavior and awareness, but we also need notification to boaters and enforcement,” said Lumina, a Venice resident.

Another contributing factor to the harbor’s pollution lies in the back basins, where poor water circulation can allow many different kinds of toxins to build up over time.

“High copper toxicity combined with low tidal flushing creates a perfect storm,” said Hoffman.

Quill backs the county hull cleaning ordinance and said copper contamination could be reduced by as much as 70% through careful and proper boat maintenance.

“This move to get divers certified is a good step, but we feel that more could have been done earlier and should be done now,” he said.