Editorial September 2007 Issue

Polluting Yachties Destroying Planet!

Last summer, my son and I made the mistake of taking our 14-foot O’Day Javelin for a spin on Sarasota Bay, Fla., near Practical Sailor’s editorial office. A stench filled the air, and the bay was littered with the floating carcasses of dead fish—rotting cowfish, triggerfish, snappers, and some very big redfish. We had seen the future . . . and it was horrifying.

The culprit was red tide, a toxic algae that can kill marine life and set off a chain reaction that turns large stretches of water into "dead zones," areas so deprived of oxygen that fish literally suffocate.

Some experts link red tide blooms in Southwest Florida to the nutrient runoff from cane fields, lawns, and golf courses. Given the political clout of Big Sugar and developers in Florida, I expect boaters will soon be blamed for the mess. I am always amazed at how easily politicians can dilute the intentions of the Clean Water Act and shovel the burden onto sailors. How people who rely on the wind for propulsion and the sun for their power have become easy targets for enviornmental legislation says volumes about the way our political system works.

In Rhode Island, boaters—not an antiquated municipal sewage system—took the hit for contaminated shellfish beds. In the Florida Keys, boaters—not the plague of leaky septic systems—were pounded for polluting the reefs. And in California, bottom paint—not the state’s vast chemically enhanced farms—are being blamed for the pesticides that are leaching into bays.

What’s next?

Come September 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may start regulating the few activities on recreational boats that are still exempt from the Clean Water Act—using a sink, taking a shower, rinsing the hull, pumping out the bilge, and running the engine. Effectively, anything that is not yet regulated, and involves putting something in the water from a boat, could require an EPA permit.

How did we wind up in this fix? Blame it on a troublesome little hitchhiker called the zebra mussel.

Notorious foulers that can effectively clog power-plant cooling systems, the mussels presumably first came to the U.S. via ship’s ballast water. Because it is incidental to a ship’s normal operation, ballast water discharge has long been excluded from the permitting process established under the Clean Water Act.

As a result of a lawsuit brought by some states and environmentalists to stop the spread of invasive species, a U.S. District Court recently ruled that the EPA did not have the authority to exclude such "operational discharges."

This ruling is under currently under appeal, but I’m not holding my breath.

House Bill H.R. 2550, introduced by Senator Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) and currently in sub-committee, aims to stop this runaway train in the station. If you’d rather not pay for a permit to rinse your deck, I’d encourage you to write your congressman, expressing support for H.R. 2550.

The bill does not roll back existing environmental laws, or exempt big ships from laws restricting the discharge of ballast water. It applies only to recreational vessels, exempting those discharges that are incidental to the vessel’s operation—including deck runoff, engine cooling water, gray water, and oil-free bilge water. Laws prohibiting the discharge of oil, trash, and waste will remain in full force.

If enacted, the bill won’t bring us any closer to the truth about what’s killing our oceans, but we will be able to brush our teeth without being branded outlaws.

Darrell Nicholson

On the cover: The Sydney 36CR feels the draw of its assymmetrical. Photo by Andrea Francolini/ Sydney Yachts

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