ANCHORAGE - A ruling by a judge in California could affect all boat owners in Alaska, except the military.
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The ruling could mean that thousands of recreational and commercial boat owners will have to get water-pollution permits to discharge deck runoff, bilge water and many other kinds of liquids off their boats.
For more than 30 years, small boats have been exempt from such permits, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency routinely approves for large-scale polluters, such as seafood processors and wastewater treatment plants.
The small boat owners, however, become entangled in a court case that environmental groups, six states and others filed against the EPA over ballast-water discharges from large ships.
The litigants were trying to force the EPA to issue permits for ships' ballast-water discharges, which have introduced many invasive aquatic species to the U.S. coastline and the Great Lakes, according to federal scientists.
The Northern California district judge in the case declined to limit her ruling to ballast water. She threw out the Clean Water Act's exemption for water-discharge permits for many routine emissions from boats.
Some of the more harmful pollutants introduced by boats into oceans and rivers, such as trash and human waste, are regulated under other rules.
So far, the EPA has identified 143,000 commercial vessels and up to 18 million recreational boats that could now require pollution permits under the court ruling.
State records show about 69,000 boats registered with the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles.
The EPA is appealing the district court ruling and oral arguments are scheduled before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 14. The EPA has until September 2008 to impose the new permits under the lower court ruling.
One of the Pacific Coast commercial fishing groups that petitioned the EPA to beef up its ballast-water regulations said Thursday he is concerned that the decision is now being applied to small-boat owners.
"This could be extremely onerous when the discharges are essentially benign," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations.
Requiring a permit for deck runoff and bilge water sounds nuts, said Tom Garrett, an Anchorage small recreational boat owner.
"You can't regulate everything in this country," he said.