Continuing their efforts to clean up Puget Sound, a team of South Sound leaders in business, government and the environment is strategizing to reduce toxic contaminants from this region’s waterways. And sometimes, in doing so, they find new business opportunities.

“Fisheries and supporting business are currently being most affected,” said James West, senior research scientist for the state Department of Ecology, and a team leader for the Puget Sound Assessment and Monitoring Program.

Brian Penttila, a chemical/process engineer for the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center, agreed that, despite the agency’s best efforts so far, Puget Sound waterways aren’t close to being as healthy as they should be.

“Commercial and tribal fishing and shellfish interests are directly impacted by pollution in Puget Sound,” said Penttila, “but all businesses are impacted by the cost of dealing with stricter stormwater regulation and permitting across the state, as well as trends toward tighter contaminated site cleanup and water-quality standards.”

To talk about all this, PPRC gathered industry leaders last month for a Regional Roundtable focused on toxic contaminants in Puget Sound and how they’re affecting both local businesses and the environment.

Besides studying how to reduce key pollutants like copper, participants are also looking at opportunities for creating new products and services. “Green chemistry” — creating better, safer chemicals with more efficiency — is the industry at the top of the list.

As for specific toxic targets, copper is at the top of the hit list for reductions in Puget Sound waters.

Last year, Washington became the first state to ban copper-based bottom paint for boats due to leaching effects. Paint for boat hulls has been a product of particular contention because it traditionally has contained copper as a key component for keeping hard and soft fouling (shellfish and algae) from growing.

“Most of the paints out there are EPA safe, because you have to comply with EPA standards. But I don’t know if there are boat hull paints out there that are copper-free,” said Randy Chase, managing partner for Chase Marine in Tacoma. West Marine, which has stores in Olympia, Fife and Gig Harbor, seems to be ahead in the solutions search for this industry.

The company recently released products to address boaters’ challenges and has a new brand coming out next year. Green chemistry has been a key strategy in new products to address the problem. Boat paint now includes copper-reduced brands that dissolve fouling growth or create surfaces too thick for growth. Some even create a biofilm of slime to repel growth.

“It appears that high copper-content paints may be banned from existence everywhere at some point,” said Chuck Hawley, West Marine vice president of product information.

“However, there are other promising technologies coming in underneath them.”

And what else is replacing copper? Zinc, the same component used for other underwater boating purposes and in dandruff shampoo.

“Copper is really expensive, because the prices are driven by the market. And it’s really heavy — a gallon of paint with copper weighs about 22 pounds, as opposed to 6 pounds for a gallon with zinc,” Hawley said. “So, to create products that have less copper or no copper is really the Holy Grail of what this is all about.”

Other possibilities for new products are just starting to blossom up, said Ken Zarker, manager of pollution prevention and regulatory assistance for Ecology. He is the agency’s point person on Washington State Green Chemistry Roadmap, another roundtable that is working on a timetable running through 2017 for supporting advancements in the sector.

“In terms of the current industries, we’re looking to work with folks in the aerospace sector, the new biofuels sector, green building, and biotechnology,” Zarker said. “We’re talking about businesses that can come up with new and innovative chemistries to replace existing chemicals of concern.

“We all think there are opportunities to promote new chemistries and opportunities to create new businesses that provide solutions to some of our more challenging problems,” he said.

Penttila, too, believes that local industries can benefit from advances in green chemistry.

“Washington agriculture and forestry industries have opportunities to develop renewable feedstocks for chemicals and biofuels,” he said.

“All businesses, but particularly manufacturers, can find competitive advantage from green chemistry as they design safer chemical products and processes that reduce hazardous waste-handling and disposal costs, and create safer work environments.”

Charlotte Brody, associate director for health initiatives for the BlueGreen Alliance, which links 14 large labor unions with environmental groups, pointed to an additional benefit from new “green chemistry” businesses: jobs.

And besides the development of copper-free products, Zarker sees two additional opportunities for green chemistry: manufacturing and education.

“Initially, green chemistry will be extremely useful for specific industrial applications where it makes sense to reformulate products that will protect Puget Sound,” he said.

“And then, we have the opportunity to integrate green chemistry into the higher education system, so that scientists in the future who are now in learning mode will be able to think more sustainably about the products and materials they design.”

Reach writer Holly Smith Peterson at hpeterson@BusinessExaminer.com.