Proposed Marina del Rey copper cleanup provokes boater revolt

A worker paints the hull of a yacht at Marina del Rey Harbor, where officials are considering a plan that would require boaters to stop using copper paint.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Plans for the first extensive pollution cleanup in Marina del Rey history have sparked a revolt by boat owners at the tony harbor that could echo along the length of the California coast.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board on Thursday will consider rules that would force boaters to strip copper paint from the bottoms of their boats and replace it with a less toxic alternative. To clean copper already in the water, the plan also calls for the county to spend at least $147 million dredging the nearly 50-year-old marina, the nation’s largest manmade recreational boating harbor.

Almost all of the marina’s more than 4,500 boats have bottoms covered in copper paint.


Recent water quality analyses showed copper concentrations in Marina del Rey’s water as high as 12 parts per billion, almost four times the regional board’s standard of 3.1 parts per billion. Officials say it has the highest concentration of copper of any marina in California.

Officials estimate paint stripping will cost $6,000 for a 40-foot boat. It’s not clear where the funding for the dredging would come from, but boaters fear they will end up paying for that work too.

Officials and environmentalists have sought to ban copper paint at bays and marinas from San Francisco to San Diego, but Marina del Rey is seen as a key test case.

Already in San Diego more than 288 boats have converted to non-copper or other eco-friendly paints in the Shelter Island Yacht Basin, which is home to more than eight marinas and nearly 2,200 boats. Port of San Diego officials said their copper reduction program has exceeded targets, and by 2012, reduced the amount of copper getting into the basin by 17%.

But Marco Gonzalez, an attorney for the nonprofit Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, said marinas in San Diego have found ways to avoid the regulations.

Karen Holman, manager of the Port of San Diego’s environmental programs, said cleaning up the marinas will be a long process.

“We’re not looking for overnight success with this,” she said.

Holman said the port would like to see the same rules for copper apply to marinas up and down the coast to ensure a level playing field for boaters and businesses.

Samuel Unger, executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said copper pollution “is a widespread problem in marinas throughout California.” The state of Washington has already enacted a ban on copper paint on boat bottoms, he added.

Experts say copper paint is used on boats for precisely the same reason the water board objects to it: Anti-fouling paints are designed to be toxic to a wide range of marine life, including the algae that slimes the hulls of boats.

Oladele Ogunseitan, a professor of public health at UC Irvine, said that while copper can be toxic to humans at high levels of exposure, efforts to clean it from marinas are driven largely by ecological concerns.

At low levels, copper is beneficial to humans and other mammals because it can help with the metabolism of carbohydrates and other functions. But at greater concentrations, the metal is highly toxic, especially to aquatic life.

Copper can harm fish gills and alter their sense of smell, scientific studies show. It also can kill algae, an important food source for marine life higher up on the food chain.

“It’s OK in your swimming pool, but out in the open waters it has the potential to destabilize the ecosystem,” Ogunseitan said.

Travis Pritchard, program director at San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental group that has advocated for the cleanup of copper in San Diego Bay, said 98% of copper in the water there is from leaching hull paint and the scraping of the hull during underwater cleaning.

“Replacing copper-based boat paint with less toxic or non-toxic paint is the only way we can reduce copper pollution in our marinas,” he said. “Better options exist. Let’s use them.”

But some longtime boaters, who say they are seeing more birds and seals feeding in the marina than ever before, are unconvinced that the current copper levels are toxic to critical sealife.

They also say the industry lacks a proven alternative to copper paint.

Some recall when tin was banned in bottom paint, and copper was hailed as an ideal replacement. They see the current ban as part of a frustrating cycle that could eventually lead to the new, more expensive paints being prohibited in the future.

And many of the marina’s most affluent boaters oppose the mandate on principle. Some say they have owned a boat for years without ever having to pay to strip the paint, and they resent being forced to take action that they believe won’t solve the marina’s copper problem.

Copper is found in car brake pads, tools, coins and other external sources that dump into runoff, and eventually into the various water sources that fill the marina. Copper-filled water from Oxford Retention Basin and Ballona Creek is therefore also raising the concentration of copper in the marina, boaters argue.

Larry Silver, 77, took it upon himself to pay for a bus that will transport dozens of boaters from the Del Rey Yacht Club to the downtown water board meeting Thursday.

Smoking a cigarette in the galley of his 68-foot yacht, Silver questioned the science behind the copper reduction plan and wondered where the county can dump all the toxic sediment if officials decide to dredge.

“As an environmentalist, if they told me, ‘Put this type of paint on your boat that costs $5,000 more and helps the environment,’ I would be all for it. I raise tropical fish,” he said. “But this program is stupid. It’s going to do harm. Anything that’s alive will be killed.”

Sergio Sanudo-Wilhelmy, a geochemist at USC who has studied trace metal concentrations in Southern California coastal waters, said dredging can pose additional water contamination problems because it can release copper that has been trapped under the surface for decades.

Another option regulators are considering involves “capping” the entire bottom of the marina with a new layer of sediment. That would cost an estimated $19 million, significantly less than dredging.

Sanudo-Wilhelmy said science has come a long way in the 30 to 40 years since boaters started putting copper in the marinas, but effective non-toxic paint options remain limited.

“The sediment is polluted, but we don’t know who put it there and when,” Sanudo-Wilhelmy said.

Sewage treatment plants used to release a lot of copper into coastal waters, he added, but clean water regulations have caused those discharges to plummet over the last 50 years.

The water board’s plan now calls for about a 70% cut in the marina’s copper concentration level by 2024.

To help accomplish that, they want 85% of the marina’s boats to use non-copper paint by the same year. The plan also calls for dredging to be completed by 2029.

L.A. County officials called those compliance dates and targets “unachievable” and “unrealistic.”

Like some locals, L.A. County also called for more detailed studies similar to one that was conducted in San Francisco Bay.

In the Bay Area, further studies found the copper from some boats was less harmful than originally believed, leading officials to push for less stringent regulations.