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Psychology department to survey community about motorboat ban, benzene risk
By Timory Wilson

November 16, 2004 - A possible motorboat ban on Lake Whatcom prompted Western's Institute of Social Research to send out mailings surveying community members' opinions about banning motorboats.

The institute is mailing surveys to randomly selected households along Lake Whatcom and in Whatcom County to research how people view the nature of competition between Lake Whatcom as a source of drinking water and its recreational use.

George Cvetkovich, a professor of psychology and researcher at Western's Institute of Social Research, said he and other researchers believe they will discover through the survey how people understand the competing uses of Lake Whatcom and whether they think recreation on the lake is harmful to the environment. The survey is one aspect the institute's investigation of the community's confidence in government and private management of environmental issues, Cvetkovich said.

The lake is the source of drinking water for nearly 90,000 people in Whatcom County, and people use it s for recreation such as boating, fishing and water skiing, Cvetkovich said. The local issue of banning motorboats is an interest for the institute because many Bellingham residents are in favor of the ban and many oppose it, Cvetkovich said.

"There are those who say boating is a direct threat and others say it is safe," Cvetkovich said.

He said the institute will mail the survey within the next week. He said the survey was not developed to produce a policy, and the institute is not taking any positions on the possible ban.

He said the results of the survey will relate to the larger study of environmental issues and should interest all parties involved in the issue -- the Motorboats Off! group, the Healthy Community Campaign, the Whatcom County Council and the Fresh Water Institute.

The Healthy Community Campaign is a committee in favor of keeping motorboats on Lake Whatcom. Max Legg, co-chairman of the Healthy Community campaign, said a number of pollutants such as storm runoff, fertilizers and pesticides impact Lake Whatcom in addition to motorboats.

Boats are a more visible target to stop pollution and are distracting from other issues, such as storm water runoff, which is a problem that needs more attention, Legg said. Cvetkovich said these people believe the water, despite containing toxins from motorboat engines, is still safe to drink.

But Clare Fogelsong, the Environmental Resource Manager for the Bellingham Public Works department, said carbureted two-stroke engines pollute the lake more because they dump 25 percent to 30 percent of unburned fuel into the water.

"One gallon of fuel is dumped in the lake for every four gallons used," Fogelsong said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has specific water-quality standards, and Lake Whatcom does not exceed those standards, which is average, Fogelsong said.

Benzene, a carcinogenic substance, is a pollutant found in the atmosphere and in gasoline, Legg said. The benzene level in drinking water cannot exceed five parts per billion, according to the EPA Web site. Lake Whatcom's average benzene level is .02 parts per billion, Legg said.

Fogelsong said a zero benzene level is not obtainable because the pollutant is found in the atmosphere and naturally gets into the water. It is difficult to determine what percentage of pollutants is coming from motorboats on Lake Whatcom and what percentage is coming from cars that drive around the lake, he said.

But recreational activities are not always harmful to the environment. Recreational act-ivities, including boating, can coexist in a healthy community, Legg said. He said every human activity impacts the environment, and if the EPA standards are met, the balance between human activity and the environment can be satisfied.

"You can have a balance within the community," Legg said.

Cvetkovich said the survey should reveal what is most important in people's minds when they view human activity hurting Lake Whatcom's environment.

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