Minimizing the Impacts of Personal Watercraft
Part II: Seeking a Solution
MAKING WAVES, Aug./Sept. 1998
Next time you see a personal watercraft (PWC) Jet Ski, Sea Doo, and Wave Runner are all industry-patented names - zipping along your favorite lake, river, or stretch of coastline make an effort to ignore the irritating whine of the engine, close your eyes, and imagine all the pollution a car creates in ten years of driving (130,000 miles). That 100 horsepower personal watercraft doing "donuts" immediately off your shore creates more pollution in one hour! There is no arguing that boats & PWC that run on 2-stroke engines are irresponsibly polluting our lakes, rivers and oceans.
Although both boats and PWC use 2-stroke engines most of the controversy surrounding the issue is centered on PWC because of their enormous growth in sales, poor environmental, and horrid safety record. It is hard to find someone without an opinion on the PWC issue and articles to this effect are popping up in magazines, newspapers and on the television. The big question is: What can we to do about it?
Regulation, education and consumer choice can all create positive change and reduce the negative impacts generated by the use of PWC. One route to minimizing the environmental impacts and threats to human safety is to regulate the PWC industry forcing them to create a cleaner engine and to accept regulated use. Another strategy to improve the "personal watercraft problem" is to educate consumers and thus influence their choice. If consumers are educated on the harmful nature of personal watercraft use and demand cleaner engines along with responsible use, the industry will respond. A combination of these tactics will probably be necessary to successfully reduce the dangers of PWC thrill seeking.
The soaring sales of personal watercraft over the last decade in combination with their deleterious effects have polarized opinions. In response to these concerns a number of federal and state agencies are considering personal watercraft regulation. At the federal level, the National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) is considering major PWC restrictions to protect marine and aquatic habitat. The Department of the Interior has already banned PWC from Everglades, Yellowstone, Dry Tortugas, Glacier and Canyonlands national parks. They are also toying with the idea of banning them from all national parks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who has responsibility to curtail air and water pollution has been most active in regulating the personal watercraft industry.
On August 31, 1996, the EPA passed new rules regulating the emissions of hydrocarbons (HCs) and nitrogen oxides from marine two-stroke engines used in outboards and personal watercraft. These rules are a result of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which gave the EPA the authority to study and regulate off-road sources of pollution. Citing small marine engines as one of the highest hydrocarbon-emission polluters, the EPA is issuing regulations for two-stroke engines, including PWC. From 1991 to 1996, the EPA conducted amicable negotiations with the National Marine Manufactures Association, to establish the new emissions criteria for outboard engines without supposedly bankrupting the industry with retooling cost.
The finalized rules reduce the average HC emissions of new motors by 75 percent by 2006. They also permit the trading of pollution "credits" among manufacturers, meaning that many manufacturers will be able to sell conventional two-strokes albeit averaged against the emissions of clean motors. By 1999 manufacturers will have to start installing fuel-injected engines designed to meet the EPA regulations. As a result, manufacturers are introducing alternative outboard engine configurations that include four-stoke engines, direct-injections two-stroke engines, and the use of catalytic converters.
The EPA claims that by the year 2020 total US HC emissions from all outboard motors will be reduced by 50 percent from current levels, and by 75 percent in the year 2025. However, they admit it is hard to accurately predict that far into the future. Many are not happy with the regulations and feel that the EPA was too soft in their stance.
The Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based NGO whose mission is to reduce water and air pollution generated by recreational boating, is suing the EPA on grounds that their regulations are not stringent enough. The Bluewater Network would like to see 4-stroke engines that reduce emissions by 97% required.
Andre Mele, Environmental Director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and author of Polluting for Pleasure is disappointed with the EPA's regulations. "The EPA had a chance to do the right thing," Mele says, "but they became too cozy with the engine manufacturers and got snookered into writing an environmental rule that is really just an instrument of economic protectionism for [the industry]. It blatantly ignores the basic tenants of the Clean Air Act, which require the EPA to establish the greatest degree of emission reduction achievable through the application of technology".
Environmental guru David Brower said, "It is beyond comprehension how the EPA could have developed such weak regulations. Four-stroke marine motors are ten times cleaner than direct fuel-injection engines [those created to satisfy the EPA regulations], forty times cleaner than conventional two-strokes, and don't burn any oil, which is the most environmentally damaging part of the discharge."
Refuting the claim that the production of 4-stroke engines would bankrupt the industry, Honda has been making four-stroke outboards since 1974.
Many states are taking an even tougher stance than the federal agencies. California, in particular, is emerging as a leader in regulating personal watercraft use. Municipal water districts throughout the state are considering a ban of two-stroke engines on all reservoirs due the high levels of toxins found in these small water bodies used to supply drinking water. The most alarming toxin released by PWC and other stroke engines is MTBE. MTBE is an oxygenate fuel additive that is a water soluble, listed by the EPA as a possible carcinogen and has a turpentine-like odor and taste. In reservoirs MTBE levels spike on weekends due to heavy boat traffic.
In addition, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) upon completing studies which demonstrated the extreme air pollution generated by two-stroke engines, plans to create regulations which would phase out two-strokes by 2001. CARB's stance is significantly tougher than the EPA regulations.
While various regulations are battled on legislative and legal fronts, a more immediate and potentially more effective means of reduce the detrimental effects of PWC use is to educate consumers and generate consumer demand for cleaner PWC engines and responsible use. This demand is already rippling through the industry. PWC are generating such a bad reputation that even conventional boat dealers are distancing themselves. Last fall the Minneapolis-based Genmar Holdings, the world's largest independent manufacturer of powerboats, resigned from the Nation Marine Manufacturers Association because it offers membership to PWC companies. In an attempt to temper public backlash, many PWC manufacturers are actively promoting environmentally friendly use of PWC. Other attempts to placate the public include claims from PWC manufacturers that they are ahead of the existing EPA regulations to reduce hydrocarbon emissions.
Many jetski aficionados do not understand the devastation that their recreation is creating. Educating PWC riders on the harmful nature of PWC use will reduce impacts: environmentally conscious ocean lovers will not ride PWC unnecessarily and we can all generate a consumer demand for cleaner machines and responsible use.
Surfrider Foundation members can make a difference and reduce the harmful impacts of PWC use. Here are some ways to get active.
For additional information on PWC impacts and regulations visit the Bluewater Network web page at: http://www.earthisland.org/bw/index.htm, contact Kathryn Morgan, Bluewater Network, Earth Island Institute, 300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133, or call her at (415) 788-3666
Correction: In Making Waves, Volume 15, Number 3, I made an error when comparing motorcycle regulation to that of personal watercraft. Unfortunately, all motorcycles are NOT regulated to require four-stroke engines. In order to avoid confusion, the Surfrider Foundation does not recommend that PWC regulations should be modeled after motorcycle regulations. Thank you to our astute readership for pointing this out.
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