Expired marine distress devices, like these handheld red flares, can deteriorate and threaten environmental damage or increase fire risks. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Flare disposal is hot topic

AUGUSTA — A bill in the Maine Legislature aimed at establishing a safe way to dispose of expired marine flares has become a hot topic on the internet.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony March 5 on LD 430 sponsored by Rep. Joyce “Jay” McCreight (D-Harpswell), who chairs the Marine Resources Committee. The committee voted to move the bill forward with some amendments.

The bill would require the commissioner of public safety, working with fire chiefs around the state, to establish a system for collecting out-of-date marine flares and storing them on a short-term basis until they can be disposed of by incineration.

LD 430 also calls for the Department of Public Safety to set up an education program to inform the public and state agencies, including several state natural resources agencies, about the flare disposal program.

The Coast Guard requires that commercial and many recreational vessels carry approved marine distress signal flares on board. The approvals expire 42 months after the flare’s date of manufacture, so the vessel operator must bring new flares onboard.

For boaters, the question is how to get rid of the expired flares that contain toxic pyrotechnic ingredients and that can burn as hot as 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit.

So far, no one has come up with a good answer, but discussion of McCeight’s bill has provoked plenty of discussion online.

In an online newsletter, Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatUS) Manager of Government Affairs David Kennedy said that if LD 430 passed, it “would make Maine a national leader on an issue that has vexed boaters, government, and environmental advocates for decades. It solves the huge dilemma of how to safely dispose of these hazardous materials.” Kennedy also testified in favor of the bill at last week’s hearing.

BoatUS is the largest recreational boat owners group in the nation, but its opinions don’t have universal approval.

Responses to a story about the bill on the widely read sailing website Scuttlebutt were largely dismissive of the idea, suggesting that expired flares could be part of a fireworks display on July 4 or at other times provided that Coast Guard was notified in advance so there would be no mistaking holiday spirit for an emergency.

Still, the issue is a serious one.

Testifying in favor of the bill, McCreight said, “The most common suggestion for getting rid of expired flares is take them to the Coast Guard, your fire department, your transfer station. The Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Auxiliary no longer accept flares. Transfer stations are not able to accept this level of hazardous waste, and fire departments aren’t necessarily set up to accept them either, although some will.”

The result, as many vessel owners can attest, is that expired flares stay on the boat, where they may be inoperative when needed, or end up ashore in basements, barns and sheds, where they pose serious fire hazards.

The best way to dispose of outdated flares appears to be high-temperature incineration and disposal of the byproducts in accordance with Department of Environmental Protection requirements, the method called for in LD 430.

In most respects, McCreight’s proposal is similar to a bill she sponsored in 2017. LD 252 was passed by the 128th Legislature but vetoed by Governor Paul LePage, who considered it an unfunded mandate to the state fire marshal.

The Senate voted unanimously to override the veto, but the House, with a tally of 82 in favor and 62 against, failed to reach the two-thirds vote needed to enact the law.

Two years ago, State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas testified against McCreight’s proposal, but this time around his testimony was offered in the “neither for nor against” category.

In 2018, he said, the fire marshal’s office “took in over two tons of expired marine flares for disposal.”

The disposal unit currently used for the task, he said, was purchased 10 years ago and “is designed to dispose of .20 to .50 caliber ammunition and up to 30 pounds of Class C fireworks,” he said. “If the office of state fire marshal is to continue providing such a disposal service, a larger capacity disposal unit designed specifically for the classifications of explosives contained in marine flares will need to be acquired.” Such a unit will cost $41,500, he said.

Representatives of the Maine Harbormasters Association, Maine Lobsterman’s Association and environmental groups testified in support of the bill.

Liz Graves contributed to this article.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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