Crackdown on Copper in California to Save Marine Life

copper pipe sweats water droplets

Migrated Image / Audrey / Flickr

When we think of copper and water, we usually think of long-lasting copper pipes in our homes. However, copper and the water supply have a more intertwined relationship than that. Each time drivers hit their breaks, or boaters put a new coat of paint on their vessel's hull, they're contributing to the level of copper found in the waterways, which becomes toxic to fish.

From losing their ability to navigate to spawning grounds to losing their sense of smell, important fish species are affected by even the smallest amounts of copper in the water. That's why California is starting a crack down on copper pollution, including new laws and clean-up orders. According to Sign On San Diego, Senator Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) is helping to lead the charge with Senate Bill 346, which would require replacing most of the copper in car break pads. The copper helps the breaks keep from overheating. But this bill comes much to the chagrin of automakers and brake manufacturers, who say cost-effective alternatives aren't available. Yet, Washington state has already enacted similar legislation, with similar bills up for consideration in Rhode Island and New York, showing manufacturers that they'd better get to work coming up with those cost-effective alternatives they're looking for.

When breaks are applied during driving, copper dust is airborne and lands on streets and sidewalks, then is washed into the waterways during storms. According to the article mentioned above, Chollas Creek in San Diego is one of the most polluted waterways in the area and half of the copper in it comes from brake dust. Another source is copper-laced boat paint which helps keep algae from growing on the hulls. Small amount slough off during use. To save fish in California, who require their sense of smell to navigate and feed, it's vital to limit and clean up the copper in the water.

"It has been proven time and again that the least expensive way to keep copper out of waterways like Chollas Creek is to stop contamination at the source," said Stacey Sullivan, policy director of the nonprofit group Sustainable Conservation, which is lobbying for Kehoe's bill.

Still, pushing auto manufacturers to move fast can also have its drawbacks, including coming up with an alternative that is not as safe or takes longer to stop the car. So while cities that are required to radically improve the pollutants in their water systems like the bill, it could have big negative impacts on roadways just as it has positive impacts on waterways. Both sides must move forward with caution.

Here's a short video discussing the problems and possible solutions surrounding the use of copper-based boat bottom paints.