Tips For Boaters: Prevent Spills And Harm To Aquatic Resources

Opening day of fishing season and recreational boating is just around the corner - and with more than 272,000 registered boats in Washington state, even small spills are a big threat to the state's aquatic resources.

Boaters can take an active role in protecting the environment by using basic boat maintenance to prevent oil spills caused by cracked oil or fuel lines, poor fittings, failed gaskets, and automatic bilge pumps that send the oil overboard.

Gas and oil spills poison aquatic life, and a poorly maintained boat can also be deadly if it leads to a fire, explosion or sinking.

The risks to people and aquatic resources were dramatically illustrated in August 2005, when an early-morning fire at the Harborview Marina in Gig Harbor (Wash.) destroyed 50 boats, 46 of which sank and released several thousand gallons of fuel and oil into the harbor.

Fortunately, much of the environmental damage at Gig Harbor was averted because spill-response booms and other equipment had been pre-positioned there a few months earlier. Quick response saved more than $1 million in cleanup costs. The prompt use of boom also prevented the oil from reaching the greater Puget Sound area.

"This was a case of being prepared just in time for the BIG one," said Gig Harbor Fire Marshal Dick Bower. "Our timing couldn't have been better - we saved the whole harbor from potential damage."

As the weather warms up and more recreational boaters are on the water, fuel spills increase. Carelessness or mishaps during re-fueling is a major cause of spills at marinas.

Another major source of petroleum leaks into state waters is boat bilges that automatically pump out oily water. Absorbent fuel collars or pads in the bilge can prevent these spills.

"Every time a big oil spill happens, it is on the news," said Dale Jensen, who oversees spill prevention and response for the Washington state Department of Ecology "but what people don't realize is that all the small oil spills that happen year around add up to more oil in the water than most big spills in any given year. All of us have a responsibility to protect our waters by performing routine maintenance on our boats and stop spills from occurring."

Steps to take to prevent an oil spill include:

  • Tune up the boat motor, check for oil and fuel leaks, and fix them before launching the boat.
  • If the boat's engine uses coolant, drain the existing fluid, recycle it and replace it -- taking care not to spill any in the water or on the ground in the process. At the same time, replace any old, stiff or cracking coolant hoses that might fail.
  • Carefully replace the engine's old gear oil with fresh oil. Use an oil recycling center to get rid of used oil.
  • To prevent sinking, inspect the cockpit drains to make sure they are clear and will drain rain water or spray from boats or waves. If the boat is left in the water, cover it to prevent water from entering.
  • During routine maintenance, when the fuel line is disconnected, securely plug or seal it to prevent leakage.
  • Put clean absorbent pads in the bilge to collect any oil that accumulates. Many boats have a bilge pump that is activated by an automatic float switch to prevent them from sinking.
  • Use an absorbent pad or fuel collar device to catch drips while fueling. Don't treat spills in the water with detergent to make them "go away."
  • Know the capacity of your fuel tank and avoid overfilling. Leave room for fuel expansion.

Tips provided by the Washington state Department of Ecology.

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