Environmental mettle

FREELAND — For 47 years, Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on Holmes Harbor has turned out hundreds of ships, including car ferries, fire boats, catamarans, ocean-going fishing vessels, paddle-wheel tour boats, huge barges and military vessels.

During many of those years, the company’s neighbor

s on south Whidbey Island complained about dust. They worried about pollution in the bay.

Now the ship builder has set new standards in protecting the Salish Sea from copper and other metals harmful to marine life. State officials are holding up the company’s storm-water treatment system as an example to other boat builders.

“I am amazed and I don’t think anybody else has achieved what Nichols Brothers has done,” said Ed Abbasi, an environmental engineer with the state Department of Ecology. “They are doing their very best to be good neighbors. They’ve done an excellent job.”

Storm water discharged from Nichols Brothers is cleaner than the runoff at any similar industry in the state and the company is probably the cleanest ship builder in the world, said Tom Atkins, a water resources engineer with Windward Environmental of Seattle.

In fact, Nichols Brothers’ treated storm water, which amounts to 2 million gallons a year, contains fewer metals than even the natural ground water found on Whidbey Island, Atkins said.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson toured the shipyard recently and was pleased with what she saw.

“Nichols Brothers has a state-of-the-art facility that goes well beyond what other boat builders do to protect the environment. Because their storm water doesn’t go down a sewer, they are held to a very high standard,” Price Johnson said. “With its living-wage jobs, the company is vital to our local economy, and now I am very proud of their commitment to protecting our local environment.”

The company’s $1.5 million storm water treatment system is a cost of doing business in a special place, Nichols Brothers chief executive officer John Collins said.

“On this beautiful harbor we are challenged to be a good neighbor while being a good steward of our investors’ money,” Collins said. “There is a struggle to maintain that balance, but we believe we can’t have one without the other. We challenge other boat builders to do what we have done.”

When Nichols Brothers was purchased in 2008 by a Texas-based investment group, the company got serious about its environmental practices, Collins said.

“Rather than argue with the state about the requirements regarding our storm-water runoff, we really had to evaluate our system, because we weren’t getting the results we needed,” Collins said.

The company built its own storm-water collection and detention tanks, laid its own pipes and improved its use of a natural wetlands next to the ship yard. Then WaterTectonics of Everett was hired to provide the treatment portion of the system.

WaterTectonics’ program includes electrical currents that cause metals to aggregate, making them easier to filter out of the water.

Recent tests show that waste copper has essentially been eliminated from the storm water at Nichols Brothers, Atkins said.

The current state criteria call for discharges of no more than 5.8 parts per billion of copper into marine waters. At Nichols Brothers, the copper discharge is less than 1 part per billion, Atkins said.

Phil Taylor, the safety and environmental manager for the boat builder, said all 200 Nichols employees have been involved in the clean up around the ship yard.

Ship construction and repair is done under huge canopies, work areas are vacuumed frequently and the company has dedicated two employees to concentrate solely on environmental issues, Taylor said.

“This was a long process, not a run to Walmart for a water filtration system,” Taylor said.

Longtime employee Scott Statia of Oak Harbor said the crew at Nichols Brothers is proud of its environmental achievements.

“A lot of our people fish,” Statia said. “They want clean water in Puget Sound, too.”

This month, Ecology’s Abbasi plans to nominate Nichols Brothers for the state’s environmental excellence award.

“They had to bite the bullet and spend the money, but that was the only hurdle the company had,” Abbasi said. “When other companies complain that they can’t meet the clean water standards of the state, I tell them about Nichols Brothers.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldent.com.

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