Can marinas go green?
Florida has 2,000 marinas, but only 140 -- 16 in Central Florida -- follow voluntary state environmental rules.Some people think a proposed marina in DeBary means more dead manatees and polluted waters in a pristine section of the St. Johns River.
But the DeBary marina builder says it will be an environmentally friendly business that won't harm the area a bit.
Ultimately, it all depends on how a marina manages the toxic chemicals, human waste, gas and oil that could pose environmental threats.
Florida has 2,000 marinas and few rules that force them to use the best methods for protecting the environment. A state-sponsored voluntary program, called Clean Marinas, encourages marinas and boaters to use such things as biodegradable detergents for washing boats and devices that prevent spills during fueling.
DeBary marina developer Joseph Krzys says he would do all those things.
But environmentalists say it's time for the state to get tougher about requiring all marinas to take stronger measures to protect the environment.
Typically, marinas' day-to-day operations -- including fueling and the handling of marine paint, batteries and other hazards -- are largely unsupervised. Inspections by the state and other agencies are infrequent.
Fuel-storage tanks, for instance, are checked just once a year, according to Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Jeff Prather. Most other inspections are complaint-driven, he said, and the agency does not conduct random checks of the overall environmental soundness of the operations.
Because of that, the way marina managers think about the environment is critical.
"If they are doing something wrong, eventually they are going to get caught," said John "Luke" Lucarell, the harbormaster at Monroe Harbour Marina in Sanford, which participates in the state's clean-marina program. "But how much damage are they going to do in the meantime?"
Florida doesn't keep separate records on marina violations, and officials say marinas in general are much cleaner today than in the past. Fines can range from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars for infractions ranging from discharging untreated wastewater to digging up or filling in parts of a river or lake without permission.
Still, the state does little to catch violators, environmentalists contend.
"Enforcement, generally in the state of Florida, is weak," said Neil Armingeon of the Jacksonville-based environmental group St. Johns Riverkeeper, which supports making some of the clean-marina guidelines mandatory. "You've got to have a carrot and a stick, but eventually you have to pull the stick out."
Boaters a key link
While marina builders jump through many hoops in the construction process, the most environmentally damaging aspect might actually be the boaters.
"You've got boaters themselves spilling fuel, throwing things overboard and cleaning their boats," said DEP's clean-marina program manager, Brenda Leonard. "The boater is where the rubber hits the road."
The potential for problems makes the DeBary marina decision all the more critical. It's located in a cypress-lined bend in the river that lies within the Wekiva River Aquatic Preserve. The area is home to manatees, eagles, a variety of wading birds and other wildlife.
A judge will decide in coming weeks whether the project should be allowed; Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Cabinet will make the final decision.
Developer Krzys said that even if the judge approves what he once envisioned as a 250-slip marina, boaters won't see the first docks for quite some time.
"I happen to care about the environment," he said. "I think a lot of what the environmentalists have done [to make permitting tougher] is a good thing. A lot of developers got them into this because they didn't do the right thing . . . there's a backlash to that now."
Florida began the clean-marina program in 2000. Yet only 140 of the state's 2,000 marinas participate, including 16 in Central Florida.
"Most marina operators the last 10 to 15 years have become environmentally conscious because they need clean water like everybody else," said Don Borum, who led the effort to have Hidden Harbour Marina -- now Boat Tree Marina -- earn the designation in 2003. "If you think boaters are going to go out in nasty water, you're crazy."
Borum, 62, grew up along the St. Johns River and learned from his boat-builder father the importance of protecting the environment. Though recently retired, he continues to serve as a mentor to other marina operators seeking certification.
Certification in the clean-marina program requires marina managers to educate boaters on how to minimize their own impact. Those who rent slips, for instance, are warned of the dangers of pumping oil-tainted bilge water into the river, taught proper fueling methods and encouraged to use biodegradable cleaning products.
Participating marinas also must implement safeguards to keep fuel, paint and other contaminants out of the water and develop plans to deal with disasters such as fires and hurricanes.
The costs of those upgrades vary. Marinas that already meet the standards might need only to process some paperwork and post educational signs. Others, particularly older marinas, may need to spend thousands of dollars to add containment barriers around work areas, install filtration systems or set up recycling plans.
Borum said his marina spent about $5,000 to install a filtration system that captures contaminants at a boat-wash station feet from the St. Johns.
To encourage marinas to sign on, the DEP offers incentives, including a 10 percent discount on submerged land leases, the fees for using state-owned land below the water. The agency also provides free oil-absorbing pads and other safety items and a blue-and-white "Clean Marina" flag that signifies the business' commitment to the environment.
The program still doesn't address one important issue: the illegal pumping of human waste from boat holding tanks, a problem most common in areas where people live at anchor or where pump-out facilities don't exist.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Lt. Bill Hightower, who patrols the St. Johns River, said in a state with roughly 1 million registered boats, people must take personal responsibility.
"The way to protect the St. Johns River is to get away from it," he said. "The next-best thing is to use common sense -- think about what you are doing as if that is your own drinking water."
Steven D. Barnes can be reached at 386-851-7911 or s email@example.com.