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Give Alaska Salmon a Brake!

Posted by Eric Booton at Dec 22, 2015 02:20 PM |
Urban salmon battle litter, culverts and fish passage issues, loss of stream-side habitat and alterations of natural river contours. But there’s another culprit: toxic copper dust from the brake pads on our cars and trucks.
Give Alaska Salmon a Brake!

If you look closely you can see copper flakes in the brake pads. Photo: WA Department of Ecology.

Fall is my favorite time to bicycle commute through Anchorage.  I like to watch the birch trees turn from their summer shades of green, to the yellow of autumn, and ultimately to their final resting place on the bike path where they crunch under my tires.

I also like to see our salmon change as they slowly dawn their spawning colors while working their way up our fresh water urban streams.  It’s a unique Alaska experience to be able to set out on my bike after work, with a fishing rod strapped to my back, and come home an hour later with a fresh Coho for dinner.

With the rapid urbanization of Anchorage in the past few decades, our urban salmon runs in Anchorage are a fraction what they once were.  Actually, it’s amazing salmon still return to our urban waterways at all.  Urban salmon battle litter, culverts and fish passage issues, loss of stream-side habitat and alterations of natural river contours.  But there’s another culprit: toxic copper dust from the brake pads on our cars and trucks.

A nice Coho caught on Ship Creek in the heart of downtown Anchorage.


Copper in Brake Pads

Automobile brake pads contain a small amount of copper for smooth braking, to transfer heat more effectively and improve braking in cold temperatures.  As brake pads wear down they create a fine dust that includes copper, which is deposited on roadways and washed into urban waterways and storm drains (otherwise known as “nonpoint source pollution”)..  Even small amounts of copper can be toxic to aquatic life, and scientific research has shown that copper impairs salmon’s ability to smell, making it more difficult for them to find a mate or escape predators.

In recent years, California and Washington passed “better brake laws”, phasing out copper in brake pads to combat rising levels of copper in their urban watersheds.  Here’s a rough overview of the timeline for implementation of these "better brake laws:"

Better Brake Laws Timeline

· 2010 WA and CA pass laws reducing toxic material in brake pads

· 2013 All manufacturers must provide baseline report to WA

· 2015 WA law restricting use of heavy metals and asbestos in brake pads, phases out copper, goes into effect 2015

· 2021 Brake Pads in WA must now reach the 5% copper restriction standard and meet safety regulations

· 2025 CA law takes effect no later than Jan 1 2025

· 2025 Brake Pads in WA must be below .05% copper

We are still 10 years out for from having low copper content brake pads on the market in WA and CA. WA is leading the way and CA will likely adopt a system similar to what WA implements.

After talking to several brake pad suppliers in Anchorage, I quickly learned that there are no copper free brake pad options for sale in Alaska.  The most environmentally friendly options available are organic or ceramic pads, which still contain up to 5% copper. But according to Fish Radio, brake manufacturers have agreed with the EPA to make low-copper brakes a national standard.

Stormwater Filtration

An invisible enemy of the urban salmon is stormwater and the many toxic chemicals and minerals it transports from roads and lawns directly into our urban waterways. Washington recently experienced mass salmon die-offs in less than 24 hours after rain events.  As an extra step to mitigate the toxics in stormwater, including copper, Washington state has begun doing research on stormwater filtration using soil-based systems to filter run off, and the tests have proven quite successful.  Scientists found that salmon were unaffected by the same stormwater that killed others after it was filtered by a soil based system.

Coho salmon spawning in Anchorage's Chester Creek.  Photo: Marc Lester, ADN.


What Can Alaska Do to Protect Urban Salmon?

In Alaska today copper from brake pads is making its way into our urban waterways where it can affect salmon and other aquatic species.  As climate change unfolds, our streams will continue to warm, making our salmon more vulnerable to pollution, predation and disease.  As a result, Alaska must embrace a precautionary approach that protects salmon habitat, and reduces nonpoint source pollution. That’s why it makes sense for Alaska to adopt a “better brake law” similar to those in Washington and California, so we can give our urban salmon a fighting chance.

For more information on better brake laws and stormwater filtration check out:

· Better Brakes Law” WA Department of Ecology

· Copper In Brake Pads” Copper Development Association Inc.

· Copper-Free Brakes Initiative” Copper Free Brakes

· Tapping The Brakes On Copper Brake Pads” Sightline Institute

· Urban Runoff Killing Coho Salmon, but Simple Solution Within Reach” Univ. of Washington