HARPSWELL — After a lobsterman called her attention to unsafe and environmentally hazardous practices, a state representative is proposing a formal system for disposal of expired marine distress flares.
It began with a simple question this past summer from Bob Perry, a Bailey Island lobsterman who was telling his sister over coffee one morning that he was not sure where he could dispose of old flares. The flares, which expire after 42 months, employ pyrotechnic chemicals and are classified as hazardous waste that cannot be buried in a landfill.
“I was telling her, ‘I’ve got these flares, and I’ve got no idea what to do with them,'” Perry said last week.
With the exception of smaller boats and specific recreational uses, existing law mandates that large vessels must be equipped with visual distress signals, most of which use pyrotechnic chemicals to emit a bright emergency flare, according to the Boater’s Guide to Maine Laws and Responsibilities.
Perry owns a 25-foot lobster boat, which means he needs a minimum of three flares aboard his vessel. He said he’s never had to use one; the times his boat has broken down, he has called a friend for a tow.
After coffee that morning, Perry’s sister urged him to ask Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, what to do with the pile of old flares that had built up in his shed.
He did, and the request sent McCreight on a wild goose chase.
After speaking with Perry, McCreight started contacting marine wardens, game wardens, and the Department of Marine Resources. She expected to have an answer for Perry within a day.
But McCreight found no formal process exists for the disposal of marine flares, and much of the feedback was contradictory or environmentally unfriendly.
“There was nothing consistent,” McCreight said earlier this month. “As I dug deeper, and I discovered that all the information that I was getting (about disposal) was contradictory – some of it was illegal, some of it was polluting.”
She called Harpswell’s local transfer and volunteer fire departments, but learned that neither were set up to take the flares.
She searched online, and again found contradictory, illegal, and environmentally unfriendly advice – much of which Perry confirmed was taking place in the area.
Perry said a lobsterman from Phippsburg told him about occasional “flare nights,” where fishermen would gather to set off the old flares like fireworks.
Besides the obvious fire and safety hazards of a flare-based firework show, it is illegal to display emergency distress signals unless assistance is needed.
McCreight also learned that some fishermen attempt to deactivate the flammable components by dunking the flares in water, and then throwing them (and the water) away.
Although the water renders the devices inert, the process pollutes the water and landfills with prochlorates, a harmful chemical that McCreight said “as far as I know, it’s not illegal; it’s just not good.”
McCreight said she was bewildered by the apparent lack of a solution – especially given the theoretical scale of the problem in a state like Maine.
Perry agreed. “I can’t be the only one on the coast of Maine that doesn’t know how to get rid of them,” he said.
There are about 6,000 registered fishing vessels in Maine, according to Jeff Nichols, director of communications for the Department of Maine Resources.
In Harpswell, there are 266 licensed fishermen, said harbormaster Jim Hays; on top of that, he said there are nearly 2,000 recreational boat moorings.
While not every recreational boat is required to carry flares, and it is impossible to know the precise scale of the problem, the number of licenses support McCreight’s concern that there “could be thousands and thousands” of expired flares piling up on boats, and in sheds and basements across the state.
It is both an inconvenience and a safety hazard.
“No matter where they are, if anything happens to get them to ignite, they burn wicked hot,” said Perry, who worried what would happen if a boat caught fire with extra flares on board.
At one point, McCreight was told the U.S. Coast Guard would accept flares – but when she called, they said they didn’t want them. However, that call did lead McCreight to the Coast Guard Auxiliary, where a representative was part of a stakeholder’s group that has met periodically to discuss solutions that would become the foundation of McCreight’s proposed legislation.
Brunswick Fire Chief Ken Brillant attended a meeting last October. “We’ve always taken them here,” he said recently. “We get contacted and take them in.”
He said his isn’t the only fire department across the state that collects flares. But Perry and McCreight said they have heard reports from fishermen who have been turned away – not because the local agencies don’t want to help, but because individual officers are unsure of informal department policies and procedures regarding flares.
Communication may be the key to proper and effective disposal policy, both Brilliant and McCreight said, and Brilliant wants fishermen to know that with or without the passage of McCreight’s bill, his department will be a flare-collection site.
“We’re trying to get the word out (to other departments) that (we’re) the ones that should be taking them,'” Brillant said.
Building on the system Brillant described, McCreight is proposing a consistent, statewide solution that codifies what is happening naturally in some places on a small scale.
“I wanted to find a simple solution that doesn’t cost a lot of money,” she said.
McCreight looked into models in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Louisiana that used municipal funding to ship flares across state lines to incinerators (requiring special permits and extra costs), or grant funding to set up collection sites.
She deemed both choices either too complicated or expensive, especially given that Maine already has a process for disposing of flammable hazardous waste through the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
Instead, she drafted a bill that asks the Department of Public Safety to “develop a plan using fire departments throughout the state for collection by fire marshal inspectors,” McCreight summarized in an email.
Fishermen would be able to drop their flares off at local fires station at no cost, and with no hassle.
As is the case with fireworks, the state fire marshal would pick up the flares to be incinerated.
McCreight is waiting for the Revisor’s Office to issue a final draft of the proposed bill. After she gathers sponsors it will likely be reviewed by the Marine Resources Committee, she said.
The bill also includes an education component to publicize the solution, given McCreight’s realization that a lack of coordinated communication has allowed the proliferation of unsafe disposal methods.
She said coordination would formally take place in pamphlets and departmental memos.
Informally, Perry said word of mouth is equally effective in Harpswell.
“If you start a rumor at the store,” he said, “it will spread like wildfire.”
Perry added he has strong faith that fishermen would take advantage of McCreight’s proposed solution.
“If she gets this bill through, and anything becomes of it,” he said, “she needs a gold star.”
Bailey Island lobsterman Bob Perry and Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, are working on a solution for disposal of expired marine distress flares.