New target for environmentalists

Personal watercraft called noisy polluters

July 03, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

They're fast, they're fun to operate and they're driven by engines that are among the worst polluters on the water.

Personal watercraft (PWCs) are under attack by environmental advocacy groups from the Izaak Walton League of America to the Blue Water Network, a coalition of environmental organizations on the West Coast.

San Juan County, Wash., an archipelago in Puget Sound just south of the Canadian border, has banned PWCs from its waters.

The National Park Service has banned PWCs from many of its parks, and the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered manufacturers to reduce polluting emissions by 70 percent by 2008. Regulators in California are less patient -- demanding the same reductions by 2001.

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources has established safety regulations for personal watercraft statewide and added special regulations for Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County. The department has shied away from environmental regulations, however, while it gathers data from scientific studies done in the past few years, says DNR spokesman John Surrick.

Industry spokesmen acknowledge the environmental problems their products cause and say they are working hard to fix them. They also complain that their industry is being unfairly singled out.

"We're a favorite of extremist environmental groups to use in their fund-raising campaigns," says Larry Lambrose, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association in Washington.

Personal watercraft, also known by manufacturers' names, such as Jet Skis, Wave Runners and Sea-Doos, are powered by two-stroke engines, the same as outboard motors. But they have more horsepower than the standard outboard, operate at higher speeds for longer periods of time, and emit eight times more pollution than equivalent motorboats, according to a June 1998 California Air Resources Board report.

The board estimates that a two-hour ride on a 100-horsepower PWC emits the same amount of pollution as driving a 1998 model car 139,000 miles.

Because of their shallow drafts, PWCs can be driven close to shore, disrupting nesting water birds and other wildlife.

"We're concerned about the disruption of avian habitat," says Kim Coble, Maryland senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Birds can adapt to regular disruption, but when it's sudden and unusual, that's something else."

Reports from the Izaak Walton League and Blue Water Network complain about noise pollution from PWCs, but industry representatives say they have made their craft quieter and are upgrading their engines to reduce pollution.

"Every PWC sold today satisfies any noise standard there is anywhere in the world," says Fernando Garcia, chairman of the Na- tional Marine Manufacturers Association's technical committee and director of research and development for Bombardier, a PWC manufacturer in Melbourne, Fla.

Garcia says manufacturers are developing the technology for cleaner engines, but that they are being pushed too far, too fast. The costs involved will drive up the price of their products until few people can afford them.

"What happens is the environment suffers," he says. "People won't buy new PWCs and continue to operate their old engines. That way nobody wins. The consumer loses, the manufacturers and dealers lose and the environment loses."

Laurie Martin of the Izaak Walton League says her organization believes the manufacturers "have done wonderful things" to improve their engines, but notes that the improvements have been "only one model" from each manufacturer and argues they all should be required to meet the more stringent California standards.

That's the kind of statement that irritates Lambrose of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.

The league, he complains, opens a report claiming that annual pollution from PWCs is worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, but acknowledges later in the report that the tanker spilled crude oil and the watercraft are emitting exhausts. In another section, the league acknowledges that manufacturers have made strides in improving their products.

"They come out with these inflammatory headlines, cliches and sound bites, then in the report they admit we're doing good things," Lambrose says.

The industry has "moved forward aggressively" to develop quieter engines and has pushed safety legislation in several state legislatures, he says.

Maryland has adopted some of the industry group's ideas. Operators must be 16 or older, for example, and anyone born after July 1, 1972, must have taken a boating-safety course to operate a watercraft in Maryland. PWC operators must keep a buffer zone of 100 feet around them in most waters and 300 feet in the surf.

To Natural Resources Police who patrol Maryland's coastal bays, safety is the primary issue.

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