Opponents complain there are few cost-effective options for complying with environmental ruling

By Gary Walker

Los Angeles County officials and local boaters must take steps to drastically reduce high levels of copper pollution in Marina del Rey harbor, a state agency ruled Thursday.

The decision by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board will likely force the thousands of boat owners who use the marina to strip copper-based paint from boat hulls sometime over the next 10 years.

It could also prompt dredging to remove polluted sediment from the bottom of the harbor.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, state agencies can take action to limit the acceptable total maximum daily load (TMDL) of toxins in a specific body of water, forcing local jurisdictions to remediate pollution levels.

Despite formal opposition by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the objections of hundreds of angry boaters who attended the hearing in downtown Los Angeles, the board voted 6-0 to require an 85% reduction in copper levels over the next decade.

Water board scientists trace copper pollution to tiny particles that flake off boats. Stripping copper-based paint and replacing it with an alternative coating is expected to cost thousands of dollars per boat.

“If they pass the TMDL [reduction], we’re leaving. There are many residents who will not stay because it’s cost prohibitive,” said Carrie Radcliff, a member of the Del Rey Yacht Club who lives with her husband on a 40-foot sailboat docked in Marina del Rey.

Some speakers said they have observed growing sea life populations and thus find it hard to believe that pollution is an issue. Others complained there was a lack of viable alternatives to copper paint.

“There are no alternatives. Biocide-free paints are not feasible because of their lack of [functional] viability,” said Greg Schem, who owns the Boatyard, a vessel storage and launch facility on Fiji Way. “Why isn’t there a more measured approach to the proper way to proceed?”

Jenny Newman, a Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board unit chief, said the agency may be able to offer grants for lower-income boat owners to offset costs of repainting. She was also optimistic that market-based solutions would emerge.

“We believe that new options [to replace copper-based paint] will become available during the 10-year allocation period,” Newman said.

Los Angeles Waterkeeper, a Santa Monica-based environmental group that’s supportive of the water board’s decision, countered that it uses a copper-free paint on the boat it maintains at Marina del Rey harbor.

“It has worked extremely well for us and we are very happy with it,” said Laura Meeker, a Los Angeles Waterkeeper watershed program manager.

Meeker said a 2009 study by the California Environmental Protection Agency found that Marina del Rey waters had the highest level of dissolved copper levels of 23 harbors that were tested.

Newman said more recent studies showed very high levels of copper discharge at both the front and back of Marina del Rey harbor.

Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board officials have also offered a county-led dredging of the harbor —which could cost upwards of $200 million — as a potential method of reducing copper pollution levels, but are not advocating it as a solution in Marina del Rey.

In a letter to the board, state Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance), whose district includes Marina del Rey, had requested an extended comment period before the board’s decision.

Newman countered that the normal comment period of 45 days had already been extended to 71 days.

Officials with the county’s Public Works and Beaches and Harbors departments had asked the board to delay its decision for up to two years.

“The county would also consider a compromise to the TMDL,” Beaches and Harbors Acting Director Gary Jones offered during the meeting.

Newman said her agency would work with Beaches and Harbors to keep boat owners informed about the new water quality mandates.

Keith Lambert, head of the sport-fishing and fish-hatchery group Marina del Rey Anglers, docks his boat in Basin E, which board officials described as one of the more polluted basins.

Marina del Rey Anglers have raised and released more than 90,000 white sea bass into Santa Monica Bay as part of the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife’s Ocean Resource Enhancement and Hatchery Program.

“If you pass this [regulation] as it stands now, we will have to stop raising fish because the cost will be exorbitant,” Lambert told the board. “We care about our programs and that’s why this TMDL scares the dickens out of me.”