Dozens of expired marine flares from the town of Harpswell’s flare take-back in June. Improper disposal or storage of expired marine flares can lead to both safety and environmental issues. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

A flare take-back program in Harpswell — the only program of its kind in Maine — is collecting hundreds of expired flares in its third year, protecting both the community and the environment. Meanwhile, a Harpswell legislator’s bill will help sustain the program and make it possible for more communities to participate.

Marine flares, the devices boaters keep on board to signal for help in the event of an emergency, expire about three years after manufacture. Improper disposal or storage of expired flares can cause all sorts of issues, according to take-back organizers.

The storage of flares in homes and garages poses a risk to the occupants, including children who might come across them. In the event of a fire, flares could go off and injure firefighters.

“The more we can remove them, the better, for a variety of reasons,” Harpswell Fire Administrator Art Howe said.

The effort to solve the problem started when a Harpswell lobsterman asked state Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, how he should dispose of expired flares in his basement.

“This is six years later, because everything out there is wrong,” McCreight said. She called much of the advice about how to dispose of marine flares unsafe and even illegal.

From left: Meriel Longley, a firefighter and paramedic with the town of Harpswell; Art Howe, fire administrator for the town; and state Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, display expired marine flares outside the town office on July 7. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Some boaters will deploy expired flares on the water, which can lead to a costly and unnecessary search — and a charge of making a false distress call, which carries a hefty fine.

Others throw flares away with household trash, but flares contain a chemical called perchlorate that can have harmful health effects if it leaches into the water and soil. Flares can also cause problems with trash incinerators.

“They need to be disposed of in an approved incinerator,” McCreight said.

For the last three years, the Harpswell Department of Safety and Emergency Services has collected expired marine flares from fishermen and recreational boaters. The department takes road flares too.

The department focuses its efforts on the spring and fall, when recreational boaters launch their boats and take them back out. Howe, who leads the department, said that firefighter and paramedic Meriel Longley and Harbor Master Paul Plummer provide vital assistance.

This year, the take-back ran throughout June and collected about 250 flares. Some had expired recently, others not so recently. Two devices that stood out with their distinctive color, shape and size were 27 years old. Other flares showed visible corrosion.

Organizers agree that the program is the only one of its kind in Maine and said such programs are rare in the U.S.

“The whole country is watching us,” McCreight said.

A pair of smoke signal devices from Germany are among the hundreds of devices that will go to the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office for incineration after the town of Harpswell’s latest flare take-back. The device on the left shows a manufacture date of 1994 and an expiration date of 1998. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

Howe said the program would not be difficult to replicate. The key ingredients are time, storage space, and access to a disposal method.

After each take-back, the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office collects the flares and disposes of them in an incinerator suitable for the purpose. But the agency needs a new incinerator.

All of this inspired McCreight’s bill, L.D. 514, “An Act To Establish and Promote a System of Safe Disposal of Expired Marine Flares.”

The bill directs the state’s commissioner of public safety to “establish and oversee a program for the convenient and safe collection of expired marine flares”; to “establish a program for the safe, nonpolluting disposal” of those flares; and to educate the public about expired marine flares.

As part of the collection process, the commissioner will work with fire departments, marinas, municipalities and other entities to collect flares. The Maine Department of Public Safety will also collect flares directly from commercial fishermen and recreational boaters who contact the department.

McCreight has introduced the bill in three legislative sessions. The first two times, the bill received bipartisan support but met with unexpected obstacles. Former Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill the first time. The second time, the bill appeared likely to pass until the COVID-19 pandemic halted the Legislature’s work.

In this session, the bill received unanimous support from the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. It went “under the hammer” in the House and Senate, which means each body passed it without objection; and found support in the all-important Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. 

The Maine Department of Marine Resources will fund the bill from its budget. The price tag is $41,500, the cost of the “mobile thermal destruction unit.” 

Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill on July 8, a moment McCreight celebrated.

“This has been my heart bill,” she said. “It’s my mission to get it to happen.”

The town continues to accept flares at the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department, 1600 Harpswell Islands Road, Orr’s Island, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Ring the doorbell to drop off.