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What to do with “a barn full of expired flares?”

New law establishes safe disposal system for marine flares

Boaters will now have clarity for how to dispose of expired flares following a legislative victory for Casco Bay and other marine waters of Maine; LD 514: An Act to Establish and Promote a System of Safe Disposal of Expired Marine Flares.

Harpswell Fire officials and Rep. Jay McCreight pose with expired marine flares.
State Representative Jay McCreight (right), Harpswell Fire Administrator Arthur Howe (center), and Harpswell Firefighter and Paramedic Meriel Longley (left), pose with a pile of expired marine flares collected by the town of Harpswell this summer.

When State Representative Jay McCreight first learned about the public safety and environmental hazards posed by expired marine flares, she had only begun to grasp the magnitude of the problem that would come to define the remainder of her legislative career. It was 2016 when a Harpswell lobsterman and constituent of Jay’s called her to ask what he should do “with a barn full of expired flares.” 

Marine flares are pyrotechnic devices that boaters can use as a distress signal in emergencies. The United States Coast Guard requires most boats over 16-feet long to have at least three marine flares on board at all times for emergency use. Flares expire within three to four years of purchase and must be replaced. For recreational boaters, fishermen, and lobstermen such as Jay’s constituent, expired flares can pile up over the years. The question then becomes: what should be done with old, expired flares?

To track down an answer, Jay began by reaching out to her usual sources: Maine Department of Marine Resources, Department of Environmental Protection, the Coast Guard, and Friends of Casco Bay. Jay was shocked to discover that no one she contacted had a clear idea of how to dispose of expired flares.

“Usually you can reach out and get an answer,” said Jay. “I learned very quickly that all of the advice out there about how to dispose of flares was either wrong, illegal, or harmful.” 

Marine flares create a bright light and burn at high temperatures, posing a serious fire hazard. Flares also contain toxic chemicals, such as perchlorate, which can contaminate water and harm the health of humans and wildlife. Due to these hazardous qualities, it is illegal to throw flares in the trash. For the same reasons it is also not recommended to store expired flares at home. 

Without an easy option for disposal, Jay found boaters opting for problematic alternatives. Some would fire their expired flares at sea, which is illegal for falsely signaling an emergency, and simultaneously introduces toxins into the ocean. Other boaters soak their flares in water to reduce the fire hazard, but this method releases perchlorate and creates water pollution. Jay also speculates that some boaters would toss their expired flares overboard. 

Working alongside Harpswell fire department officials, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and Friends of Casco Bay, Jay quickly found that the only safe way to dispose of expired flares is to incinerate them. Burning flares at high temperatures resolves the fire hazard while breaking down the perchlorate they contain into benign chemical components. 

Since Jay first learned about the marine flare issue in 2016, she has proposed legislation three times to create a statewide system for flare disposal – a system to safely collect and process the flares and to educate the public about proper disposal. Despite the broad support that Jay was able to garner from fellow lawmakers, the first version of the bill was vetoed by then-Governor LePage. The second time around, Jay’s flare disposal bill met a dead-end when the legislature closed after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Maine in the spring of 2020. With the end of her final term in office looming, Jay sponsored her flare bill once more in 2021. In a victory for public safety and the health of Maine’s marine waters, Jay’s bill was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Mills in July.

“We are so very grateful to Jay for her perseverance. In the five years it took to pass and fund this bill, she worked to help create temporary solutions and build a network of people dedicated to being part of the answer, including the Coast Guard Auxiliary, fishermen, industry groups and us,” said Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca. “For example, the Harpswell fire department officials organized efforts to collect and store expired flares, and researched and tracked what happens in other states to help shape the best solution for Maine. In the year ahead, we look forward to informing boaters about how to use this new system.” 

Jay’s flare bill, LD 514, will go into effect on October 18, 2021. It will allow the state to purchase a small flare incinerator and create a program for the collection and disposal of expired marine flares. The bill also mandates a public education campaign to ensure all boaters know how to properly dispose of old, expired flares. 

“I called it my heart bill, the legislation I was going to get passed no matter what. It taught me that so much of legislating is about persistence,” said Jay. “When I walk up to people in the legislature, they will sometimes greet me with, “Flares?” 

On the grand scale of environmental issues, Jay says that creating a system for marine flare disposal is just one small piece of the puzzle, but that every piece matters. “We need to tackle all the big things too, but the small victories keep us going,” said Jay. “For the health of oceans and for the health and safety of people – this system will make a difference.” 

Boaters with expired flares can arrange for them to be picked-up by the Maine State Fire Marshall by calling their office at (207)-626-3870.