|Loophole in ballast law lets invasive species in|
|Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel|
|Monday, 31 October 2005 11:45|
Two uniformed U.S. Coast Guardsmen climbed aboard the 730-foot-long ship Lake Ontario at the Snell Lock in upstate New York and spent the next hour testing its ballast tanks to ensure that ship operators had followed U.S. rules intended to stem the flow of invasive species into the Great Lakes.
The law requires oceangoing vessels that carry ship-steadying ballast to flush those tanks in mid-ocean and take on a fresh load of saltwater. The idea behind the high-seas exchange is to expel - or kill - any freshwater species a ship might have unwittingly sucked into its ballast tanks at a previous port.
Ships like the Lake Ontario that pass the saltwater test are allowed to steam on into the heart of the continent.
Those that don't are either turned away or the captain must pledge not to discharge any ballast while in the Great Lakes, and prove he hasn't done so with another test on his exit from the Seaway.
The zebra mussel invasion of 1988 spawned this exchange rule. Despite the hassle involved, the shipping industry has come to embrace it.
"Here is the truth: Some species came in that can be attributed to ballast," says Helen Brohl, executive director of the United States Great Lakes Shipping Association. "It wasn't done intentionally, and from the very first day it was brought to the industry's attention, the industry immediately implemented voluntary ballast exchanges."
That voluntary rule has since become mandatory, and while everybody agrees that this is a good practice, most also agree it doesn't go nearly far enough in protecting the Great Lakes from the next zebra mussel, or quagga mussel, or round goby, or ruffe, or spiny waterflea - all Great Lakes invaders scientists blame on ballast spills during the last three decades.
The reason: As many as 90% of the oceangoing ships arriving in the St. Lawrence Seaway are loaded with cargo and therefore don't officially carry ballast, and that exempts them from the ballast exchange law.
Yet those "empty" ballast tanks hold permanent puddles, some of which contain nearly 10,000 gallons of water, as well as tons of muck teeming with life. Ships arrive at their first port of call on the Great Lakes, unload their foreign cargo, then take on ballast water to get to the next Great Lakes port. When they reach that port, they dump that ballast in exchange for cargo. That's when species can literally jump ship and invade the lakes.
This is not a theoretical problem. Data show that, despite the ballast exchange requirement, a new invasive species continues to be discovered, on average, every 6 1/2 months.
Anthony Ricciardi, an invasive species expert at Montreal's McGill University, sees the ballast loophole as something akin to injecting fresh infections into an already ailing patient.
"These ships," says Ricciardi, "are like syringes."
Loading the dice
Billions of critters arrive annually in bellies of freighters
The scope of the problem posed by the "no-ballast" ships is hard to comprehend.
A ballast tank-sampling study completed this spring by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that no-ballast ships carry literally billions of live critters each year into the Great Lakes basin. Of most concern to scientists are the estimated 26 million foreign invertebrates considered invasion risks because they are members of species yet to be established in the Great Lakes. Scientists believe those species could survive in the lakes' fresh water, a drinking water source for millions of people.
About 99% of those critters live in the muck and are less likely to be set free during ballast discharges, but researchers worry most about the roughly 1% that live in the ballast water puddles. Those are the species most likely to be given hundreds of chances each year to win a home in the Great Lakes, say researchers, who note that the shipping industry has been cooperative in allowing ballast studies aboard its vessels.
"Most introductions fail," Ricciardi explains. "But what we've done is the load the dice in favor of these species, because we give them so many opportunities that if they land in the right place, they'll succeed."
The study found that 62% of the no-ballast ships' tanks also tested positive for human pathogens such as cholera, Cryptosporidium and Giardia, though it did not determine their concentrations, so the scientists can't say exactly how much of a health risk they pose.
Thus this shipping season remains much like the others in the 46 years since the Seaway opened - oceangoing ships are basically allowed to dump contaminated water with impunity.
"It's a big loophole," says Richard Corfe, president of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., the non-profit company that runs the Canadian side of the Seaway. "We'll all agree to that. Whether there is a big impact to that loophole, I'm not sure what the science (is), or how accurate the science is."
David Schindler, a famed freshwater ecologist at the University of Alberta, says the science shows it is hard to understate the travesty unfolding under the lakes' glassy surface.
"On both sides of the border, we have administrations who think as long as the cash register is jingling, everything is OK. They just don't understand, or want to understand, the long-term threat of these problems," Schindler says. "Here we have 20 percent of the world's fresh water in one little area, and that Seaway, and what has happened because of it, has really screwed it up. That has to be one the great ecological disasters of all time."
Even some of the most powerful supporters of oceangoing traffic in the Great Lakes are losing their patience.
Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar, who represents the port city of Duluth, recalls a meeting with European shippers in the summer of 2000.
"Your ballast water from the Black Sea is destroying our Great Lakes!" the Democrat told the shippers. "It's that simple."
He doesn't expect such admonitions to whip the shipping industry into doing something on its own.
"The only way is to have fines and penalties, and . . . tough enforcement," he says. "They are not going to do it out of goodwill."
Legislation to cinch loophole on ballast water languishes
There are, of course, other pathways for foreign species to invade the lakes. Recreational boaters dump contaminated bilge water, and pet owners set their pets free. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, an artificial link between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes, is the site of a fevered battle to stop the progress of Asian carp. The voracious filter feeders have been found within about 40 miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline, and the only thing standing between the monstrous carp and the Great Lakes is an electrified swath of canal.
But Ricciardi says the latest research shows that contaminated ballast is responsible for nearly 70% of the invasions in the last few decades. Anger over the ballast issue is mounting across the region, and across the political spectrum, as legislation to close that ballast loophole has languished in Congress for three years.
"It more than frustrates me. It pisses me off," says Dan Thomas of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council, which champions the interests of an estimated $4 billion Great Lakes sport fishing industry - which, ironically, is built on ocean salmon planted annually to eat invasive alewives.
One stumbling block: Some property-rights advocates fear that the legislation, the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act, could become a 21st-century version of the controversial 1973 Endangered Species Act. Those critics say environmentalists and federal biologists have hijacked the 1973 law to impose their vision on public and private landscapes.
But Dave Dempsey, a former member of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, says the main problem is political inertia.
"I don't think the urgency is there. It certainly exists in the region, but I don't think it exists in Washington, D.C., outside of the Great Lakes delegation," he says.
The courts are now wading into the issue; this year a federal judge in California ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate ballast as a potential pollutant. That ruling, which the EPA may still appeal, could mean ships would be ordered to clean up their discharges or face stiff fines, like any other water polluter.
Regional politicians, meanwhile, also are preparing to take matters into their own hands.
This summer a "frustrated" Gov. Jim Doyle ordered the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to look into passing a state law to limit contaminated ballast discharges. Michigan adopted such a law this year, and it is scheduled to take effect in 2007.
As in Michigan, the move in Wisconsin to wrest the matter from the hands of the federal government has bipartisan support.
"We don't have to sit on the sidelines and wait for the feds to act; we can act now with our friends across state lines and protect these waters to the best of our ability," Republican state Sen. Neal Kedzie said this summer. "These unwelcome species are ecological and biological bullies, and without concerted effort, they'll continue to push us around for decades to come."
The growing criticism of the industry has shipping lobbyist Brohl feeling "beleaguered."
"It's really unfortunate that the states don't value the economic benefits (of overseas shipping) enough to sit down and talk to us, instead of about us," she says.
A technical fix?
Ballast water can be made cleaner, but not utterly sterile
Ballast discharges also are causing ecological trouble at saltwater ports around the world. The United Nations' International Maritime Organization passed a rule in early 2004 that, if adopted by at least 30 member nations, will require ships to install ballast treatment systems on all new vessels beginning in 2009 and on all existing ships by 2016.
Now the race is on to be the first to develop a cost-effective fix that meets the proposed requirements. There is, of course, money to be made here.
"The technology is worth billions of dollars in patents to whatever company develops it," says University of Windsor biologist Hugh MacIsaac. "It's almost like pharmaceutical companies looking for anti-fatness drugs."
The problem of removing biological contaminants from ballast water is profoundly more complicated than it would appear on the surface, says Georges Robichon , senior vice president and general counsel for the Canadian shipping company Fednav Ltd., the largest international user of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Working on the 35th floor of a Montreal office tower that owns a commanding view of the St. Lawrence River, Robichon cites recent failed experiments to kill ballast dwellers. Chlorine might have done the job, but it can corrode a ship's bowels and threaten the integrity of the vessel itself. A copper ion treatment system also failed; it could not be operated at full strength because of copper dumping rules in the Great Lakes.
Now Fednav has invested in a Norwegian company that is developing a ballast treatment process that filters out everything thicker than 50 microns, or one-twentieth of a millimeter, sucks the oxygen out of the water and then essentially shakes the water violently enough to kill much of what might otherwise survive.
But given the fertile environment of ballast tanks and the volume and speed of ballast exchanges, both ship owners and scientists say it is unreasonable to expect ballast water to be certified as completely clean.
"We can't sterilize a ballast tank," says NOAA's David Reid. "Heck, we can't even sterilize a hospital room."
Still, scientists and conservationists worry that the U.N. group's standards are too loose to actually protect the lakes.
Robichon recognizes this, and predicts that the U.S. and Canada will adopt stricter standards on their own - once industry finds the technology.
Congressman Oberstar sees that as backward. The Great Lakes, he says, shouldn't have to wait for the shipping industry to find a solution at its own pace.
"Look," he says, "the oil companies didn't want to build double-hulled tankers."
That safety measure was ordered after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Oberstar says the shipping industry initially bristled. Now it brags about how secure its fleet has become.
"You make them do these things," he says.
It may not be that simple. One recent study pegged the economic benefit of oceangoing ships in the Great Lakes at less than $55 million a year, and some are beginning to wonder whether the cost of a mandated ballast control program will simply drive overseas ships off the Great Lakes.
"That's one possible outcome, of course. I have to say that. I'm not going to deny that," says Oberstar. "But I don't think it will come to that."