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Legal limbo on Lake Lanier: Service barred from pumping out boat tanks

POSTED: April 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.
ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN /The Times

Mark Lanford stands in front of his houseboat Wednesday at Aqualand Marina. Lanford used Clean Marine before the marinas discovered that the company did not have the proper permits to operate in the lake, leaving owners like Lanford holding the bill without the service they paid for.

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A boat sanitation company is trying to clean up its act after being suspended from operating on Lake Lanier.

Many houseboat owners were upset in February when Clean Marine, a South Carolina-based service that pumps septic waste out of boat tanks, was found to be doing business illegally.

Michael Lapina, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Buford Dam, said the corps could not grant an operating permit to the company unless Clean Marine had a sublease with each of the marinas it served on Lanier.

Lapina said it appeared that the company did not intentionally violate the law.

"It seems that there was a misunderstanding between Clean Marine and our former real estate person (at the corps), who retired around that time (when the company started doing business on Lanier)," he said.

Mike Friedman, director of business development for Clean Marine, said the former corps employee never told him that he needed to have subleases. So he had to suspend operations until the whole mess could be straightened out.

In the meantime, many people are unhappy about the way the situation has been handled.

"They kind of dropped off the radar, and our customers were left holding the bag," said Len Jernigan, general manager at Aqualand Marina. "A lot of them are really, really angry. Some want to hold the marinas responsible."

When Clean Marine first came to Lanier last year, Jernigan was working at Holiday Marina.

"At Holiday, we had our own private pump-out boat, but there were major mechanical problems with it," he said. "When Clean Marine approached us, we thought, ‘Hey, we can get out of the pump-out business.’ We weren’t making any money on it anyway. We were just doing it as a service to our customers."

Environmental regulations prohibit discharging anything into the lake. So when boat owners need to empty out their holding tanks, they usually have to navigate over to one of the pump-out docks at the marinas. Some people find the task time-consuming and tedious, and it can also be difficult when the lake level is low.

With Clean Marine, owners didn’t even have to be at the lake to get their boat pumped out. They just signed up for the service, paid their money in advance, and the company got rid of the waste for them.

"It was really nice," said Mark Lanford, who docks his houseboat at Aqualand. "I’d like to have the service back."

Lanford said he was impressed with the slick brochures Clean Marine distributed to marina members last fall. He paid almost $500 for "unlimited pump-outs."

"And for a while, service was great," he said.

But during the winter Lanford was out of the country for a while, and when he returned, he found out that Clean Marine was no longer doing business on the lake. And nobody seemed to know whether customers would be able to get their money back.

"It’s been extremely frustrating," he said.

Besides Aqualand, Clean Marine had been serving the Holiday, Sunrise Cove and Port Royal marinas. It’s not known how many customers are affected by loss of the service. But Lanford said most of the houseboat owners he knows had signed up for it.

Jernigan said Clean Marine’s illegal status came to light accidentally, during a financial dispute between Aqualand and the company.

"There was a snafu in the paperwork, and they never got approved by (the corps’ district office in) Mobile," he said.

Lapina said there’s another issue now: Clean Marine doesn’t have a business permit from Hall County.

"They need that permit before they can sign the subleases with the marinas," he said. "Then they’ll submit those subleases to us, and we’ll send them to our real estate office in Mobile for approval."

Friedman said Wednesday that he believed the matter will be taken care of "relatively soon." He said he expects to have subleases signed with Holiday and Sunrise Cove "probably by next week."

"We’ve also been talking to Port Royal and Bald Ridge marinas, and we hope to resolve our issues with Aqualand," he said.

But Vernita Loveridge is not as optimistic as Friedman seems to be. Loveridge is area vice president for Westrec, which operates Holiday and Sunrise marinas.

"I can’t say we’re close to an agreement," she said. "(Clean Marine) hasn’t yet gotten a business license, and they need to have that before we can proceed. We’ve been in talks for about a month, and they just haven’t followed through."

Friedman said he is confident the company will meet all the legal requirements soon.

"If we were suspended from Lake Lanier permanently, we would give refunds to the customers," he said. "But there won’t be a need to do that, because service to customers will resume exactly where it stopped."



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