Phasing Out Copper Bottom Paint
Evolving environmental regulations require a host of innovative ways to keep slime at bay.
The Baltimore County Marine Trades Association considered a copper ban, but it pulled back after deciding that “there isn’t really a proven alternative to copper yet,” said Raymond Porter, a boatyard owner and the association president. He estimated that a water-collecting system would cost his 100-slip boatyard $80,000. Yet, as he watches clean-water enforcement move down the U.S. East Coast, he braces for a new day in antifouling.
In San Diego, based on studies showing birth defects in mussels and physiologic impairment of oysters, scallops, sea urchins, and crustaceans, state water authorities have given the port 15 years to reduce copper pollution by 76 percent.
Because there’s no single target, like boatyards, and copper is a widely used (and legal) antifouling, regulators are sponsoring paint tests in an attempt to persuade boat owners—and paint companies—to try alternatives. The 15-year window was chosen as the average time between bottom stripping, when paint changes could be made without extra costs to boat owners.
Eventually, though, a sea change is coming. “If you think about it,” said Leigh Taylor Johnson of the University of California Sea Grant Extension Service, “three out of four boat owners would have to go non-copper. The clock is ticking.”
Consequently, San Diego has become a test bed for tomorrow’s bottom paints. A two-year program tried out virtually every non-copper paint on the market and concluded that new zinc-based biocides and new slick paints without pesticides can match copper in price, life span, and fouling prevention. (See “Bottom Paint Simplified (a Little),” page 71.)
For their part, paint companies have anticipated the dethroning of King Copper with a blizzard of new paints. The paints are expensive to create and manufacturers have found it’s costly and time consuming to gain regulatory approval; several are still awaiting E.P.A. and California approval. And the new paints, say paint companies, often will require careful attention to application and maintenance—no more slapping on a new can and plopping the boat in the water.
“We defend the science of copper and the use of it, as do our sister companies. I don’t believe copper is killing our waters,” said Bob Donat of Interlux, the largest antifouling paint company. “But if California wants to ban copper, 100 percent completely, we’re prepared for that.”
Jim Seidel, Interlux’s assistant marketing manager for North America, added that as a whole, the paint industry was “trying to make all antifouling paints more efficient. If we can reduce the amount of biocide and still create the same level of antifouling protection, that’s a step in the right direction.”
Pettit’s sales of copper-free paints have doubled in the last two years, “but to be honest, they don’t hold a candle to the slowest-moving copper product,” said director of sales and marketing Don Zabransky. “Will it, over time? Yeah. We’ve been working in this direction for over a decade. The key is figuring out what your need is, then putting on the right paint to give you the coverage you want with the least impact on the environment around you.”
So what’s a sailor to do? There are 6 million boats in the United States, and at least half of them require antifouling paint. Antifouling is both an economic necessity and a nuisance. Some sailors solve the problem in the way that Zeehag, a recent poster on CruisersForum.com, does: He heads to Trinidad to use outlawed tributyltin. “Morally reprehensible?” he wrote. “Maybe. Functional? Yes.”
But for the conscientious sailor, the new paradigm will likely be “managing” copper use: More thought. More complex applications and maintenance. Higher initial costs, which means pushing environmental costs into the pockets of sailors themselves. We’ll all have to bear a bit of the burden.
In the worst scenarios floated to date, the complete phaseout of copper in bottom paints will occur within nine years in some locations. In the meantime, more products are coming, with less copper and more additives, all designed to gradually reduce copper pollution.
Today doesn’t mark the end of antifouling copper. But with a good pair of binoculars, you can watch it as it disappears over the horizon.
Jim Carrier owns Ranger, an Allied Seabreeze, currently berthed in Tunisia. A longtime environmental reporter, his writing is included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2010.