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Boatyard rule changes delayed

A controversial new permit governing Washington boatyards is going back to the drawing board in the wake of reaction from stakeholders.

The Boatyard General Permit, which governs about 100 boatyards around the state, was expected to be implemented this month and would impose stricter water standards but also give struggling boatyards more time to meet the new requirements.

After receiving 80 pages of written comments from boatyards, port authorities, trade groups, environmental organizations and others, the state Department of Ecology, which issues the permit, is considering revising the draft document. Gary Bailey, Ecology’s water quality permit specialist, said he is putting together a report detailing possible changes to the permit, which will go to Ecology management for review and a decision.

The draft permit proposes stricter benchmarks for copper and zinc but a more lenient limit for lead (benchmarks are considered target levels and are not legally enforceable, while limits are legally enforceable levels). The permit also sets the same benchmarks for boatyards on both freshwater and saltwater. Many boatyards would need to install costly treatment systems, which can cost upward of $100,000, to meet the new standards.

The benchmarks are a primary sticking point for the Northwest Marine Trade Association, which represents boatyards, and environmental watchdog group Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. PSA wants stricter benchmarks and says it will likely appeal the permit if it goes forward as drafted, while the NMTA says tightening water standards further could put boatyards out of business.

The benchmarks in the permit are “technology-based,” meaning they are determined by what can be achieved through the water treatment methods currently available. NMTA President George Harris said if PSA appeals the permit it would throw the process into limbo, making it difficult for boatyards to get financing to install water treatment systems while it’s unclear what the new standards will be.

Chris Wilke, PSA’s executive director, said the association thinks Ecology should stick with tighter benchmarks proposed in 2008 as part of an agreement struck between PSA and NMTA after both sides appealed the last Boatyard General Permit, issued in 2005.

The appeal went before the state Pollution Control Hearings Board, which issued a judgment that included stricter benchmarks and required that those be “water-quality” based — dictated by the impact of pollutants on marine life — rather than technology-based.

The stricter benchmarks were included in a modification to the 2005 permit, but after an economic impact study found that more than 20 percent of boatyards could not afford to install water treatment systems, Ecology decided not to modify the permit. Instead, the department issued the new draft permit in May with less stringent benchmarks.

Frustrated with the process, PSA last December threatened to sue five Seattle-area boatyards for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. The cases were settled out of court, with the boatyards paying a total of more than $77,000 in legal fees, more than half of that to pay PSA’s attorneys. The legal action created an uproar in the marine industry and led to the sudden departure of PSA’s former executive director, Bob Beckman, who was replaced by Wilke in May.

The previous permit set stricter benchmarks for boatyards on Lake Union and the Seattle ship canal, but an Ecology water study during the winter of 2008 and 2009 showed that levels of copper, lead and zinc were below problem levels in both bodies of water, alleviating the need for stricter limits.

The new permit proposes a copper benchmark of 50 parts per billion (ppb) daily, versus the old benchmark of 38 ppb for boatyards on freshwater and 229 for those on saltwater. The proposed benchmark for zinc is 85 ppb, while the limit for lead changes from 55.6 ppb to 185 ppb.

The copper benchmark previously agreed on by PSA and the NMTA is 14 ppb daily. Wilke said PSA had expected the new draft permit to adhere to the Pollution Control Hearings Board judgment and contain the stricter benchmark.

In written comments, the National Marine Fisheries Office said the proposed benchmarks for copper and zinc do not go nearly far enough to protect salmon and other marine life. “We do not believe these proposed benchmark levels avoid more than minor detrimental effects to salmon and steelhead,” wrote Steven Landino, the Fisheries state director for habitat conservation.

The Environmental Protection Agency, while recognizing the efforts boatyards have made to reduce pollution levels, also said in its written comments that the proposed copper benchmark “are insufficient to ensure that stormwater discharges from boatyards meet copper water quality standards and avoid or minimize adverse affects to salmon.”

Wilke said PSA will likely appeal the permit if the proposed benchmarks aren’t strengthened but emphasized that he hopes to avoid that. PSA, the NMTA and Ecology have met in recent weeks in an effort to come to an agreement on the permit. The NMTA plans to establish a voluntary “clean boatyard” certification program that would help boatyards reduce their levels of water-borne pollutants, and is advocating for legislation that would gradually phase out copper-based boat bottom paints.

“We are in close talks with the Marine Trade Association,” Wilke said. “We are working very hard to avoid an appeal. We recognize the benefit to all involved if there was a permit that did not need to be appealed.”

Another sticking point in the proposed permit is a provision that would allow struggling boatyards to request a hardship certification. If granted the certification from Ecology, those boatyards would have five years — the length of the permit — to install water treatment systems. But they would then be subject to the stricter water-quality limits, rather than the more lenient technology-based benchmarks applicable to the other boatyards. Both PSA and the NMTA have objected to the hardship certification, saying all boatyards should be subject to the same standards.

Bailey said he hopes to issue the new permit by the end of the year, but if Ecology decides to offer the public another opportunity to comment, that would delay the process another few months. It’s unclear yet whether that will happen, he said.

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