The Flammable Fix

A lawmaker in Maine has an idea for collecting expired flares from boats
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Joyce “Jay” McCreight, a third-term Democrat in Maine’s House of Representatives, was perhaps the least likely lawmaker in America to lead on the issue of collecting expired flares from boats. The retired social worker isn’t even a boat owner. She had no idea that flares expire 42 months after they’re made, or that boaters are required to replace them after just a few seasons on the water.

But, McCreight is from Harpswell, which is on Casco Bay in the Gulf of Maine. That means her constituents include a slew of lobstermen and recreational boaters, all of whom—just like boaters across the United States—have been flummoxed for decades while trying to figure out where to put the expired flares.

“I had a lobsterman call me and say, ‘What am I supposed to do with these things?’” McCreight says. “He’d been a lobsterman for 30 years, and he said, ‘I have hundreds of these in my basement.’” The thought of hundreds of flares being stockpiled in a local basement startled McCreight, who imagined the fireball that local responders might walk into during an emergency, without even realizing the danger. So, she promised to get back to the lobsterman right away. She figured it would take her an hour, maybe a day at most, to get her constituent an answer and get those flares out of his basement. That was an entire legislative session ago.

“The bottom line is that there is no answer,” she says. “People say, ‘Take them to the Coast Guard,’ but they don’t accept them. ‘Take them to the transfer station where they have the recycling bins,’ but they don’t take flares. Hazardous waste won’t take them either. They see it like ammunition.”

Lawmaker Joyce McCreight wants to help boat owners dispose of  expired flares.

Lawmaker Joyce McCreight wants to help boat owners dispose of  expired flares.

McCreight’s research led her to propose the Safe Disposal of Expired Marine Flares Act, which is being debated by Maine’s lawmakers at this time. The legislation could, according to BoatU.S., become a first-of-its-kind law in the country, as well as a roadmap for other states to follow in addressing a problem that has vexed countless boat owners nationwide for generations.

“There hasn’t been any really good answer to the problem,” says David Kennedy, BoatU.S. manager of government affairs. “We think this is some real leadership here, a good idea.”

McCreight wrote the legislation after talking with an array of stakeholders, including the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, state fire marshal, local fire chiefs, Friends of Casco Bay advocacy group, marina owners, Maine Maritime Academy, the harbormasters association, and recreational and commercial boaters. Her first version of the bill made it through Maine’s legislature last session, but the governor at the time vetoed it. She’s trying again this year with a new governor in the statehouse and the support of national organizations including BoatU.S.

The idea is for Maine’s statewide fire marshal—whose team has the authority to collect expired flares, along with fireworks and ammunition—to cooperate with local fire chiefs and organizers at local flare-collection events. Those events could be held during, say, a boating week  celebration, or at any time that makes sense for a community. “I’m asking the departments of public safety, inland fisheries, marine resources—any agency that has anything to do with boating and fishing rules and laws. The fire marshal would coordinate with them so they would know what the plan is,” she says. “Also, fire chiefs would voluntarily make it known in their communities that they will be receivers of the expired flares.”

Once the flares are collected at centralized local points, the fire marshal’s staff would take them to Maine’s only incinerator (in the Augusta area) that’s federally approved to burn flares in an environmentally safe way. The final bill also may include a note suggesting the purchase of a second incinerator, which would cost about $41,000, McCreight says: “That way, staff wouldn’t have to travel the whole state.”

Kennedy says that in every state across America, the problem of handling expired flares is both legal and environmental. Flares contain perchlorate, a substance that also is used in fireworks, military munitions and missiles. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says short-term exposure to high doses of perchlorate can cause eye and skin irritation, coughing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. According to Kennedy and  McCreight, boaters have been burning flares in home fireplaces (an awesome way to emit chemical-based smoke into a living room), soaking them in buckets of water before dumping them in the trash (a fantastic way to pollute groundwater and landfills) and shooting them off like fireworks on the Fourth of July (a great way to cause a false alarm with the Coast Guard).

Bruce White, who co-owns the Portland/Midcoast Sea Tow franchise in Maine, plans to testify in favor of McCreight’s legislation. A retired firefighter, he agrees that the problem of expired flares is sometimes out of control, including with boaters who keep stacks of them on board, or with boaters who toss expired flares overboard, polluting the waterways. White says he held an expired-flare collection day last spring at one of Hodgdon’s shipyards in Maine, and boaters filled four bushels with the things. “Some of them were really old,” he says. “They had wooden handles on them. People turned those in.”

There’s still a ways to go before McCreight’s bill could become law in Maine. As of this writing, it was in committee awaiting a public hearing. After that, it would have to pass the state’s House and Senate, and then go to the governor for a signature, as the previous version of the bill did. If all of that happens and the new governor signs the bill into law, then it could become effective by August or September, McCreight says. “In the meantime, as the fire marshal said to me, he’s processed two tons of flares,” she adds. “Obviously, talking to all these groups and people is at least getting some of these things out of people’s basements.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.