San Diego Union Tribune

November 19, 2007

Recreational boaters face environmental fees


WASHINGTON – Before Sandy Purdon could steer his 55-foot Fleming powerboat out of a Maryland yacht club last month for a voyage through the Panama Canal to San Diego, he had to pay documentation fees, Coast Guard fees, customs fees, FCC licensing fees, sales tax and personal property tax.

Were Purdon to embark on the same adventure a year from now, he also might find himself paying as much as $1,500 for a federal environmental permit every time he crosses into a state's waters.


A federal court has ruled that a fee on large commercial vessels implemented to help deal with pollution and foreign species that are dumped with ballast and bilge water also applies to private recreational craft. The fee is charged when boats travel from state to state.

Pro: The pollution and invasive-species problem is cumulative, and smaller boats contribute to it; owners should pay.

Con: The regulation targeted cargo ships and tankers. Many recreational boat owners can't afford the fee; fewer boats will have a rippling economic effect.

That can add up to a chunk of change. Although Purdon can probably afford it, he, like many of the 18 million recreational boaters in the nation, worries that the court-ordered permit will scare off existing and would-be boat owners.

“Every time you add a fee, it knocks a certain number of people out of recreational boating,” said Purdon, 64, a Point Loma resident and owner of San Diego's Shelter Cove Marina. “Once you kill people from buying boats, it's a trickle-down effect on all businesses.”

A ruling last year by the U.S. District Court for Northern California required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate “effluent discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels.”

The idea was to prevent damage to domestic waters from foreign marine species lurking in the ballast water that large vessels such as cargo tankers and cruise ships dump after using the water for stability. The invasive species are generally plants, fish and marine animals such as mussels that attach themselves to a boat and travel from one port to another.

The court order also covered discharges from smaller recreational boats, including water used to cool the engine, the “bilge” water that collects at the boat's lowest point and must be pumped out, the “gray” water from a boat's sink or shower, and the deck runoff. The order also could cover sailboats if they have automatic bilge pumps.



The EPA has until September to create a permitting plan for all vessels covered under the court order, which includes the nearly 1 million recreational boats registered in California. Many owners, including Purdon, are battling the new requirement with help from congressional lawmakers.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has pledged to seek an exemption for recreational boats.

“Recreational boating and sport fishing should be allowed to continue as they always have,” Boxer said.

Asked about boaters' complaints, an EPA spokeswoman referred to a document spelling out her agency's responsibilities under the court order. The document acknowledges that the new permitting plan poses “unique challenges” and that the EPA “lacks practical experience permitting” recreational boats. On the other hand, the EPA is the nation's principal pollution-prevention agency and enforcer of the federal Clean Water Act.

The group that filed the initial lawsuit, Northwest Environmental Advocates, argues that the cumulative discharge from many vessels, even smaller ones, can harm the environment.

“The motivation behind the lawsuit was ballast water, but the petition addressed the regulation as a whole,” said Nina Bell, the group's director. “The court agreed with our position.”

Purdon said that's going overboard.

“Every time you exhale, you're polluting the air. How crazy do we want to get?” said Purdon, who was appointed to the California Boating and Waterways Commission by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Under the new permit structure, critics argue, a boater wanting to travel from California to Oregon to Washington must get a separate EPA permit for each state. Although no one is certain how much the permits might cost, boating experts estimate that they would range from several hundred dollars to as high as $1,500 per permit.

“It's something the average boat owner would not tolerate,” said Dave Geoffroy, executive director of the Southern California Marine Association, the nation's largest regional marine trade group. “It would take thousands and thousands of pleasure boats off our waterways.”

For manufacturers of recreational boats, marine engines and boat accessories, the new requirement potentially means far less business for the $33 billion-a-year industry.

“This presents a huge barrier to people continuing to boat or new people getting into boating, because it adds significant expense and complexity,” said Thom Dammrich, president of the 1,700-member National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Dammrich's organization, which runs the annual San Diego Boat Show, represents as many as 30 boating groups – from the Recreational Boaters of California to the American Sportfishing Association – that have banded together to fight the EPA permits.

Dammrich's group said California ranks No. 2 in the nation after Florida in the number of registered recreational boats, with nearly 1 million mechanically propelled boats – which includes sailboats with motors – and an additional 71,036 sailboats, canoes and kayaks.

California also is second in the nation in boat sales: In 2006, Californians generated $1.21 billion in new powerboat, motor, trailer and accessory purchases. The state has 83 boat builders and more than 8,000 employees in the boating industry.

“A lot of people in the lower-income brackets survive off boat maintenance and boat repair, and the fewer you have out there to repair, the more people you have out of jobs,” Purdon said.

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