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Lake boaters may need additional permits due to Clean Water Act

POSTED: April 6, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

All boats, like these houseboats docked at Aqualand Marina, may soon be required to obtain discharge permits. A 2006 federal court ruling could force the EPA to require discharge permits for all types of boats, large and small.

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An obscure federal court ruling two years ago could end up having a big impact on boaters at Lake Lanier and throughout the country.

For many years, the Clean Water Act has required ocean-going vessels to have a discharge permit. The intent was to prevent ships from dumping their ballast water, which can introduce invasive plant and animal species into the United States.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has always exempted recreational boats from this permit requirement. But in a 2006 decision, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the EPA had no authority to grant that exemption.

The EPA is now drafting new rules, set to go into effect by Oct. 1, that would apply to all boats.

Boat U.S., an organization that lobbies on behalf of boat owners, is urging members of groups such as the Lake Lanier Association to write to their congressional representatives and get the situation corrected.

Congress tried to do this last year with the Recreational Boating Act of 2007, which never came up for a vote. Now legislators have introduced the Clean Boating Act of 2008, which would grant a permanent exemption for recreational boats.

Congress is in recess this week. But Sheridan Watson, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, thinks this bill has a good chance of passing when Congress reconvenes.

"Sen. Isakson is very supportive of the legislation. He has signed on as a co-sponsor," she said. "He does not believe the EPA needs to be regulating recreational boats."

Most people in the boating industry feel the same way. Alex Laidlaw, vice president of operations for Holiday and Sunrise Cove marinas on Lake Lanier, was baffled by the 2006 court ruling.

"It was a horrible decision. It was not well thought out," he said. "And we have only about six months to correct this. If the bill doesn’t get passed, every boat owner would have to get a permit. With all the recreational boating that goes on in Georgia, it’s going to be a mess."

The district court ruling can be appealed, but Laidlaw said boaters can’t afford to wait that long.

"The court system doesn’t move very quickly. The case could take several years to get to the appellate level," he said. "Meanwhile, the EPA is already writing the rule to go into effect by October."

Rules promulgated by the EPA are typically enforced by the states, so the job of issuing discharge permits would likely fall to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. But the DNR is already understaffed and underfunded. Recently the agency decided to cut costs by hiring an outside contractor to handle fishing and hunting licenses and boating registrations.

Margaret Podlich, vice president of government affairs for Boat U.S., said there are at least 12 million registered recreational boats nationwide, plus about 3 million unregistered boats such as canoes and kayaks. Requiring discharge permits for all of those boats would only increase the burden on overworked agencies.

"We don’t need another layer of bureaucracy," she said.

Podlich points out that "99.9 percent" of recreational boats don’t use ballast water. Ballast is water that a ship deliberately takes on board to provide weight and stability. It is dumped at the end of the journey when it is no longer needed.

But if small boats don’t have ballast water, what discharge would a permit be regulating?

Podlich said she can’t say for sure, because the EPA hasn’t yet released its draft permit. But she said the agency has been "talking about" regulating gray water, bilge water, engine cooling water and deck runoff.

Bilge is water that gets accidentally splashed into the boat and needs to be pumped out.

"It’s already illegal to discharge oily bilge water, so this would be for non-oily bilge water," Podlich said.

Bill Vanderford, a fishing guide on Lake Lanier, said this type of regulation makes no sense.

"Any water we have in the boat came from Lanier. We’re just putting it back where it came from," he said. "It’s already illegal to discharge gasoline or sewage. Having another law seems like an exercise in futility, and it would cost a lot of money."

Podlich said the original argument for discharge permits was valid.

"We need to do more to prohibit the importation of aquatic nuisance species into our country," she said. "But a small, recreational 16-foot johnboat that someone’s got on a trailer in their driveway doesn’t carry ballast water and has very few discharges. Yet we’re being lumped into the same permit system as the big, commercial ocean-going ships.

"We’re mixing apples and oranges here."



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