One-Two-Punch Knocks CSR out of Lake Union


 

This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Northwest Yachting Magazine

 

The irony that was coming has arrived.

 

When CSR Marine takes its crane from its Northlake yard on Lake Union in Seattle, and locks the gate behind it, the lake will probably get dirtier. The water going into that yard from the street was usually dirtier than the water going out of it into Lake Union*. Now that yard is closing , that water goes straight into the lake. At the very least, there is now no control over the stormwater runoff that goes over the land that has been a boatyard for 50 years.

 

Hmmm. It’s a result that’s good for nothing. Not even fish.

 

It would be easy to lay the yard closure completely at the feet of the Puget Soundkeepers Alliance (PSA) that initiated lawsuits nearly a year ago, but that wouldn’t be the truth and CSR isn’t doing that. The truth is that the yard would have eventually needed environmental upgrades totaling about $100K, with or without lawsuits. It might have been a couple years down the road.

 

The PSA lawsuits certainly pushed the process along, but the economic downturn and current state of the industry were also key to CSR’s decision. Yacht brokerages are shutting doors and new boat sales are anemic at best. The yard’s bread and butter was commissioning new boats and sprucing up old ones for new owners, and there just isn’t that much of that happening now.

 

“I’m not saying PSA put us out of business there, because they didn’t” Scott Anderson of CSR says. But the lawsuit, initiated right before Christmas last year with an Intent to Sue letter, hastened the demise and used up important financial and human resources. CSR ultimately had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees (PSA’s and their own) plus a $5,000 penalty that took the form of a donation to Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Seattle. That’s another dismal irony to all this, the money that goes to worthy causes pales in comparison to the money that goes to lawyers. If CSR wanted to keep the Northlake yard open, it would have required a complete $17K level 3 report and environmental upgrades of about $100K. Even the most optimistic accountant would have trouble making that pencil out these days.

 

What Will Come of that Space?

 

There is something to be said for change. Old photographs of Lake Union show a body of water inhospitable to man and beast, a cesspool of sewage, toxics, industry and derelict vessels. People worked there, and it’d be a fascinating place to go back in time to visit. I’d love to go back and poke around all that. But in my own real life and for my son I’m glad Lake Union and it environs are so much cleaner.

 

Once upon a time a cedar mill stood at 2401 N. Northlake Way. Since at least the mid-1950s, it has been a boatyard. A fellow named Alex Hess installed a big crane and started a boatyard. In 1957, Monty Holmes, Bob Hull and Jerry Hood took the site over and opened HHH, a boat builder, boatyard, fuel dock and houseboat repair facility. The crane that Hess built a few years earlier had dry rot and, sure enough, dropped the 50-ton schooner Thetis. Monty Homes was under her when the crane started to go: “I had played semi-pro football, and was able to roll out from under,” Homes explains. He and his partners rebuilt, but only lasted about another year and a half before calling it quits.

 

Then came along R&H Marine, which built wooden motorboats until the 1970s. Subsequently the owners of the land, the Gillespie family, had their own boatyard called Seattle Marina when Tim Ryan and Scott Anderson turned up and rented part of it to start CSR. Eventually, they rented the whole site. As CSR, the yard was packed so tightly with boats it boggled the mind how boats could be moved around. There were high-end classic wooden boat restorations going in boathouses while cutting edge racing sailboats had their bottoms brought to glassy smoothness outside. Success led CSR to expand with yards near the Locks and in Des Moines.

 

So what will become of 2401 N. Northlake Way now? Property owner Sam LeClerq doesn’t really know. Immediately, he’ll be able to lease the slips. But the days of moorage waiting lists aren’t what they used to be.  Usage for the “uplands” isn’t so obvious. “We might use it for storage,” LeClerq says. “ As it is right now, it’s useless as a boatyard.”

 

It’s the second tenant LeClerq’s lost this year due to the one-two punch of the uphill environmental compliance battle and the economy. The tenant of what used to be LeClerq’s own boatbuilding site shut its doors at the beginning of the year. “I got burned twice,” LeClerq says. His company still does yacht work indoors, where environmental compliance is more easily attainable.

 

 

New Permit

 

CSR’s closure brings into focus the future of boatyards. The Department of Ecology’s newest stormwater permit, which has been out for public comment for the last few months, is clearly designed to balance the prospects of yards staying in business with the need for environmental stewardship. Comments, of course, came in. “There are definitely two points of view,” says Ecology’s Water Quality Permit Specialist Gary Bailey. “The boatyards feel the numbers are too stringent and Puget Soundkeeper Alliance feels they are too lenient.”

 

Bailey has processed all the comments and is coming up with his recommendations to Ecology management. Depending on what he recommends and what’s decided, a revised permit could be opened for another round of public review or simply implemented.

 

PSA has of course contributed its thoughts to the process. “We hope Ecology issues a permit we don’t have to appeal,” Executive Director Chris Wilke says. Wilke takes issues with several elements of the permit. For example, he says the copper limit in fresh water is 147 ppb versus 38 in its prior permit. ” The Clean Water Act dos not permit backsliding,” he says. There is also a controversial “hardship” clause, which will allow boatyards some time to get their pollution controls installed, but then be faced with hard limits. In the meantime, yards already in compliance would be subject only to benchmarks. “It’s poorly written,” says Wilke.

The lawsuits of a year ago changed the atmosphere of cooperation that had been forged before then. Things may be changing. Wilke helped build the Clean Marina program in cooperation with the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA), and is sending out signals that, from his standpoint, cooperation may be possible. “I don’t see ourselves at permanent odds with the marine industry,” Wilke says. When talking about the excessively polluted street runoff going into the boatyards, he even said, “I’m not opposed going to bat for the boatyards.”

All that notwithstanding, it’s also quite clear that PSA is ready, willing and able to appeal if the rewritten permit isn’t acceptable to them. And it will be a long while before yard owners don’t wince if they see a PSA return address on something coming into their mailboxes.

 

 

Big Picture Stuff

 

Sandy Howard in Ecology’s communications department is quick to point out that Ecology’s main thrust these days is to reduce the number of toxic substances that might potentially go into the waterways. To that end, they’re pushing alternatives to copper bottom paint.

In fact, that’s the area everybody, at least in theory, can come together. Communities are increasingly just saying no to copper bottom paint. In Europe it’s more and more a matter of public policy. California has settled on a 15-year phase-out of copper paints. And, surprise, the paint companies are now racing full speed to come up with the alternatives so they can stay in the lucrative business of providing anti-fouling.

While working through their issues with mediator the Ruckelshaus Center, the NMTA and PSA are actually working together on a legal initiative to phase out copper bottom paint. “Right now we are looking for a legislative sponsor,” says NMTA Governmental Affairs Director Peter Schrappen, “and then we’ll start drafting the bill.”

Imagine, boats lined up to get hauled to have all that old toxic paint taken off and replaced with some magic new nano-technology solution. Not only will it not poison fish, but measurably improve their health while giving then a peaceful sense of oneness with the universe. OK, I may be getting ahead of myself.

Hopefully there will be enough yards still operational for all that work to get done.

Or, perhaps, we’ll end up just watching it all on Court TV. Time will tell.

 

 

 

*It’s unclear just how polluted the street runoff from Northlake Way into the yards really is. Readings taken by CSR and Dunatos indicate copper content several times higher than ordinary street runoff or the runoff after treatment coming from their yards.

 

 

 

 

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