Ripple effect 

Late last summer, researchers at Bluewater Network in San Francisco tried this neat experiment: They filled a 50-gallon tank with water from the San Francisco Bay. They then inserted a two-stroke jet-ski engine into that tank and let it hum away at idle for an hour and a half. When the little engine had finished its job, the tank was full of murky black oil-and gas-laden water.

This proved two things. First, that the oil/gas mixture released by the conventional two-stroke does not dissipate within minutes into the atmosphere, as the personal watercraft industry has claimed.

Second, it illustrated that what they had created wasn't just ugly; it was now considered hazardous waste. To dump this toxic sludge back into the bay would have netted them a fine of $10,000 from the U.S. Coast Guard and an additional $25,000 from the Fish and Game Department. "Not only that," says Russell Long, executive director of Bluewater Network, "we could have gone to jail. It would have been a felony to dump the stuff."

The irony, of course, is that running a jet ski on the bay -- or on any one of Central Florida's lakes or waterways -- for the same amount of time pumps almost twice as much oil and gas into the water. Bluewater estimates that about one-fourth of the oil and gas used in jet skis ends up in the water. And the consequences for that activity?

Just a whole lot of fun.

With 1.2 million jet skis on the nation's waterways already, and sales running at about 200,000 a year, that fun is starting to cost. And while there may be no legal consequences for those having fun, Bluewater Network -- the only environmental organization to undertake such a test -- insists that the consequences to the rest of us are very real.

That's why they're now devoting much of their attention to educating the public, policy makers and environmental groups to the unprecedented power of jet skis to foul both water and air, destroy wildlife habitat, endanger others on the water, and annoy the hell out of anyone within earshot. They are especially hoping people in Florida are listening.

"The problem with jet skis is really rampant in Florida," says Katherine Morgan, outreach director for Bluewater. ""The industry got entrenched there really early."

So far, public opinion is weighing in on the side of Bluewater. Whether it will be heard over the high-decibel whine of jet skis or the even higher pitched whine of the industry and their lobbyists remains to be seen.

A bill aimed at curtailing jet skis in Florida was introduced during the last legislative session. It didn't go anywhere. And a few months later, the personal watercraft industry staged a display near the Capitol to show lawmakers just how fun jet skis can be. Around Orlando, however, several groups -- from homeowners to outdoor enthusiasts to environmentalists -- are joined in their concern about noise and erosion caused by the craft. But they are divided on how best to attack the problem.

John Puhek, transportation chairman for the Sierra Club's Central Florida chapter, says would-be regulators seem to garner the best response by challenging the safety of jet skis. His group has helped enforce speed limits of less than 5 mph along a stretch of the Econlockhatchee River favored by both jet-ski riders and canoeists. It is seeking similar restrictions on other local waterways. But, he says, harping on the potential for pollution simply doesn't play as well with the public or officials.

"People can relate really well to a person getting hit [by a jet ski] and killed," says Puhek. "That same person could care less about the environmental impact."

Jim Thomas, president of the Clean Lakes Coalition, says his group -- comprising homeowners with lakefront property in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties -- would be interested in reviewing the Bluewater Network's findings. The Clean Lakes Coalition has concerns about jet-ski pollution, but "we just don't have the data to back it up."

Even so, Thomas says, even within his group there is some question about how far restrictions should go: Along with all that nice lakefront property, lots of members have their own personal watercraft. "It is really a tough issue for us," he says.

That kind of wrangling extends to the federal level.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently is acting to regulate an industry that has never before felt the hand of regulation: all marine use of two-stroke engines. As one EPA spokesperson put it, "Their turn came up."

With 8 million two-strokes -- which includes 100 percent of jet skis and many outboard motors -- in use in the U.S., one might wonder why their turn didn't come up sooner. The answer is simply that no one really knew how much pollution the conventional two-stroke engines caused. It wasn't until 1990 that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to look at emissions from marine and other non-road-use engines like those in locomotives and lawnmowers. The study, published in 1991, showed that marine engines (specifically two-strokes), were filthier than anyone imagined.

The EPA regulations that followed were imposed in October 1996, and established a nine-year phase-in period requiring cleaner emissions. But the order only applies to new engines. "They didn't put a cap on individual motors," says Long, of Bluewater Network. "They're forcing cleaner motors to be made, but the emissions of those motors will be partially offset by manufacturing the same old dirty two-strokes that have been made forever."

Bluewater wanted the EPA to retire the two-stroke to the junk heap and encourage the industry to develop the much-cleaner four-stroke technology for jet skis. Instead, by 1999 new engines are required to emit 16.6 percent less nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons than the conventional two-stroke does today. By 2000 that reduction needs to be up to 25 percent. Each year thereafter would see an 8.3 percent reduction, until the goal of a 75 percent reduction is reached by 2006.

One EPA source, who wouldn't be named, says "this is not technology-forcing regulation; it's very modest. And considering that the technology is already out there in the form of four-strokes and direct injection two-strokes, the phase-in could be tighter. Industry could meet the 75 percent reduction just using technology available right now. But it costs more, so until they're forced to, they won't bend."

Enter the California Air Resources Board (ARB), an agency that makes no bones about being in the technology-forcing business. Established in the late 1960s because of California's ranking as the overachiever in the race to foul the air, the California ARB has the power to pre-empt EPA regulations. What that always means is they're going to make them tougher. And although other states don't have agencies with EPA-preemptive powers, they are free to adopt California ARB standards over the EPAs, which many northeastern states already have done. That's why, when the ARB gets rolling, industry scrambles to shield its bottom line.

According to the ARB, driving a jet ski for two hours produces the same amount of hydrocarbons as driving a '98 sedan 130,000 miles. It's data like that gets the ARB heated up. They have a federal mandate to meet by 2010. And to meet that mandate, ARB spokesman Rich Varenchik says it's necessary to "make a regulation that forces industry to the edge or they just won't respond."

He says, however, that in spite of what the industry might say, the agency is sensitive to the industry and wants to come to a harmonious agreement. "Our goal," he says, "is never to put regulations in place and say ‘deal with it.' But I have to say, on these kinds of issues, ‘too much, too soon' is always industries' knee-jerk reaction. We have an obligation in California to make the air clean with or without a federal mandate."

Although regulations are still being drafted and won't reach the ARB until this fall, by all indications they could mean a ban on all conventional two-strokes in California starting in 2001. And unlike the EPA regulations, they could include a cap on emissions for any motor. "We heard from jet-ski makers that they couldn't put a four-stroke engine in a jet ski, and we heard from engine manufacturers in that same industry [who said] that it could be done" says Varenchik. "So our guys are of the feeling that the industry just needs a little push."

Kawasaki's manager of government relations, Jeff Shetler, disagrees. In his opinion, the industry is moving as quickly as it can. "People always note how much dirtier marine engines are than auto engines, but it took 20 years to get them there. We're doing it in a much shorter period of time, and the industry is spending $500 million to do it," he says.

He claims that Kawasaki has not ignored the four-stroke -- environmentalist's engine of choice -- but the weight-to-power ratio of the heavier four-stroke makes it much less desirable for the zippy watercraft. "There's nothing out there [in four-stroke engines] that's acceptable today," says Shetler, "so we have great technical challenges plus customer acceptance issues. Not to mention that we can get the two-stroke very clean."

If California's regulatory agency does ban the two-stroke engine, he says it would be difficult to market Kawasaki's full line in the state.

But while the EPA and California ARB are busy addressing the air quality issue, much less is being done on the water front. While industry claims that the oil/gas mixture dissipates almost immediately from the water and is therefore only an air problem, environmentalists say they are operating on old information. "These things are horribly dirty machines," Varenchik says. "Machines that, when going full bore, blow 20-30 percent unburned fuel out the exhaust."

Extrapolating from California ARB data, Bluewater Network says that two-stroke motors produce the equivalent of four Exxon Valdez spills annually -- the bulk of which, they claim, is emitted from jet skis. They worry that even an industry switch to a direct-injection two-stroke, which should clean up emissions by 80 percent, won't be enough (four-strokes would reduce existing pollution by 98 percent).

Long claims that jet skis already boast more pollution impact than other two-stroke-powered marine vehicles because of their higher horsepower, the aggressive way they're driven, and the length of time they're in use. Adding to that concern, they also make up the fastest-growing segment of the boating industry.

The California ARB recently repeated Bluewater's above-mentioned experiment with similar results; according to Long, studies from Europe, particularly Switzerland, Sweden and Germany, as well as more recent studies from West Virginia University and the University of California at Davis show that MTBE, benzene and toluene are all turning up in our water supply. "They stay there for a considerable time," Long says, "even accumulating. MTBE is a possible carcinogen; the others are all known carcinogens."

What's the EPA going to do about it? On a national level, not much.

For the time being, there are splintered attempts across the country to regulate both jet-ski pollution output and usage areas. These attempts have been met with varying degrees of resistance from the industry. Long is concerned that the powerful and well-funded lobby will shove weak legislation down the throats of legislatures that will preclude more meaningful legislation. California Assemblywoman Debra Bowen tested the waters of regulation just this spring with a bill that would have prohibited the sale of two-stroke engines in California after Jan. 1, 2002. She saw her bill as a way to force manufacturers and the people using two-strokes to pay for pollution cleanup that would fall to water districts and the general taxpayers. The bill died after an ugly battle involving industry lobbyists and what the Bowen contingent calls "a campaign of lies" about the bill.

More success is being had by federal agencies like the National Park Service, which just proposed regulations that prohibit jet-ski use in over 90 percent of the National Park System. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also considering regulations that would ban them throughout the wildlife refuge system. And although these prohibitions do nothing to control pollution, the bans and restricted-area mandates will at least curb damage.

While the federal agencies and the states do have the resources to stand up to industry, it's actually at local levels (where resources are scarce and industry's power to intimidate runs strongest) that many of the real battles are taking place.

"I think local communities should have the right to make their own decision," says Long. "If a community wants to have jet skis, as long as environmental issues are not prominent for them or they're not endangering someone's health, the communities should be allowed to decide." Bluewater contends, however, that communities are often unaware of the success others may have had with bans or restrictions. The organization therefore is determined to put people in contact with each other, so they know they can reclaim control of their water. (The industry also keeps close tabs on those trying to impose restrictions, especially those that might be precedent-setting. And the Personal Watercraft Zone keeps a running list of governments attempting to regulate jet skis.)

One closely watched and long-running local battle recently was won by jet-ski opponents in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle.

Concern over noise pollution and potential flushing of marine wildlife that includes orca whales and sea lions had prompted a 1996 ban for all of San Juan County. Although the jet ski business hadn't really gained a foothold in the frigid waters off the islands, locals wanted to make sure it didn't. Steve Demarest, an attorney working for ban proponents, says the threat from the jet-ski industry was, "if you don't lift the ban voluntarily, we will sue you and you will lose."

Which is exactly what happened. A suit on multiple counts, including the constitutional right to choose, saw the industry victorious at the trial-court level. But on appeal the case went all the way to the state supreme court where, Demarest says, "we kicked butt."

More common than complete bans are restricted-use areas that keep jet skis from operating at high speeds within a certain distance from the shoreline. That's been the case in Florida where, in Monroe County -- jet-ski nirvana -- the machines have been barred from operating at high speeds within a 1,200 foot zone along beaches and resorts between Key Largo and Key West. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently is considering a management plan that would eliminate personal watercraft within navigable waters of the Ten Thousand Islands, south of Naples. And Walton County is considering a ban on all motorized craft in shallows less than three feet deep. The city of Orlando has established no-wake zones on some lakes, notably the western section of Lake Ivanhoe near downtown, to curb noise and erosion.

In these local battles, noise, rather than water or air pollution, drives the push for regulation. And John Donaldson, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, has a point when he says "it's a one-way noise problem. Ask any jet skier if the noise bothers him [and] he'll say ‘no way.'" Besides, he adds, "any noise that you find unpleasant will seem much louder than it is."

Although the industry claims that jet skis operate at around 70 decibels while environmental groups counter with 85-plus decibels (the American Hospital Association recommends hearing protection for 85 or higher), Bluewater says decibel levels aren't the crux of the issue. "It has to do with the quality of the sounds," says Long, "and what distinguishes a jet ski acoustically from an outboard is that the pitch and frequency change every second or two, whereas an outboard makes a steady drone that you can tune out."

And as in Orlando, those issues of sound and safety are where most local groups have concentrated the few efforts being made to curb jet-ski activity. Indeed, until more information is available about pollution, most see that as the best course of action.

"We would like to see them [jet skis] be cleaner, but we are pragmatic in trying to work on pollution in a way that it will not restrict people's recreational use," says Arthur Whitehill, president of Friends of Maitland's Waterways.

But Bluewater hopes those interested in environmental impact won't give up.

They won't rest until the industry makes substantial progress on all fronts. Bluewater's Sean Smith concedes, "jet skis do look like a heck of a lot of fun. But that fun comes at a high cost to the general public. We'd like to see the people that use them -- and the industry -- pay those costs." When the roar dies down, maybe the reckoning will begin.

; ;

For information about jet-ski pollution, go to the Bluewater Network page on Earth Island Institute's website.



Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


© 2016 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation