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Viewpoints: A plan to prevent copper pollution in waterways is fatally flawed

As early as next month, the State Water Resources Control Board could take up the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board’s recommendation for the maximum level of copper particulates allowed in Marina del Rey, one of the largest man-made harbors in the world.

This sounds fairly simple, but the proposal is so flawed that it’s destined for failure. This pending action is not based on site-specific science and creates for the first time a dramatic assumption of personal liability for Californians. Worst of all, the impending action will not improve water quality in Marina del Rey any time soon. This local debate is a water issue that begs for a statewide solution.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins understood the need for a statewide solution to copper-based pollution in our harbors when San Diego’s Shelter Island faced the same type of mandate from its local water board. The solution Atkins offered was Assembly Bill 425, calling on the state Department of Pesticide Regulation to determine a uniform approach for addressing pollution from copper-based paints used on boats. Her legislation passed with bipartisan support and became law last year. It deserves a chance to work.

Now, instead of waiting for this statewide solution, the state water board is about to set a dangerous precedent by approving the faulty work of the L.A. regional board.

Why does this matter to Californians? Because, as the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce says, “these ill-advised regulations could establish far-reaching precedent that could be relied on for implementing regulations on other issues.”

Specifically, the recommendation for Marina del Rey would name individual boaters as “responsible parties” for copper pollution caused by paints on the bottoms of their boats, even though the paint is authorized for use in California.

This could open the door for other Californians to be held personally liable for the pollution caused from vehicles they own. While boaters are easy targets, the threat of government running amok is real for everyone who owns a car, motorcycle, recreational vehicle or anything else that might generate pollutants that find their way into our waterways.

The irony of this impending action – officially called Total Maximum Daily Load – is twofold.

First, paint products that have been proven to be effective alternatives are not on the market, so there is no economically viable and commercially available way to comply with this government regulation.

Second, when the state adopted legislation in 2010 to phase out the use of copper in brake pads, the responsibility was placed on the product manufacturer, not on individual drivers, and included authority to extend the deadline if the product was not available.

Also, there are significant environmental concerns that have yet to be properly addressed. One such item – invasive species – presents significant threats that have not been thought through.

On June 17, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, recognizing the shortcomings of the process, approved funding to conduct extensive scientific studies on the dissolved copper and sediment toxicity in the harbor. Thankfully, the county is stepping up to do the homework the regional board should have done before pushing its mandate forward to the state board.

The state board should send the regulation back to the regional board, direct the removal of specific individuals as “responsible parties” from the proposal and wait for the county’s scientific studies to be completed before taking further action. A special committee should be formed that includes representatives from state and local agencies, as well as community, business and environmental stakeholders, to come up with a solution that can then be a model for collaboration in other harbors in California.

If this course of action is followed, a statewide solution will be developed where all stakeholders have a voice and cleaner water in our harbors will be the result. That’s a goal everyone should share.