A Michigan company says it thinks it may have a promising solution to fight a huge Great Lakes problem -- invasive species dumped from the ballast of oceangoing ships.
EcologiQ, a Troy firm, hopes a tiny form of yeast it has patented can rid ships of dangerous invasive organisms that lurk in their ballast tanks by starving them of oxygen.
When ships travel without cargo, they take on water for stability. When
they take on cargo, they discharge the water from their tanks.
Ballast water often contains bacteria, viruses and the adult and larval stages of plants and animals. Those originating in freshwater in places such as eastern Europe's Black Sea could survive and proliferate once released in the Great Lakes, causing serious harm.
For example, invasive zebra and quagga mussels and round gobies, have led to a chain reaction producing botulism that has killed more than 50,000 waterfowl in three of the Great Lakes since 1999. Zebra mussels also have clogged water intake pipes throughout the Great Lakes and cost communities millions to clear away.
The new product, BallaClean, works by removing the oxygen in a closed space or body of water and suffocating live organisms that could turn into unwanted invaders once released into the Great Lakes.
The company is testing the product in hopes of getting it certified in various countries.
The firm says it offers a smaller, simpler and cheaper solution for shippers than other methods on the market. Environment Canada has tested BallaClean and found that it does not harm the environment.
The tiny yeast replicates repeatedly until all the oxygen is removed from the water it's in, said Dr. Robert Bilkovski, a former Henry Ford Hospital emergency room physician and vice president of the company.
Once it has killed other organisms, the yeast goes dormant. When it's released from the tank into a lake, it becomes harmless fish food, Bilkovski said.
More than 100 invaders have been introduced into the Great Lakes over the last century. Many were first found in Michigan where ships discharged ballast.
By 2016, the International Maritime Organization could require all ships to install treatment systems to disinfect their ballast water, but the treaty still must be ratified by dozens of countries.
Environmental groups say 2016 is too late.
Now, ships either swish saltwater through their tanks to kill freshwater organisms or dump their ballast water in the ocean before entering the Great Lakes.
Either method can leave tiny creatures in the sediment in the tanks. Scientists say treatment is the only real solution to stop future invaders.
Bills before Congress would require tougher standards and a speedier timetable for ships entering U.S. ports. But so far, the legislation hasn't passed, partly because of lobbying from the shipping industry, which says the measures are too costly.
The State of Michigan has required ballast water treatment since last year, but since no other states do, it doesn't solve the problem.
Bilkovski said EcologiQ plans to request approval for BallaClean from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
"If it's something we can demonstrate works and is effective, it's something we can work with," said MDEQ spokesman Bob McCann.
Four other treatment methods already are approved by the state, said Roger Eberhardt with the DEQ's Office of the Great Lakes.
Competition to come up with systems to treat ballast water is fierce.
Some remedies in the works or already developed use chemicals, filtration, deoxygenation by injecting a gas, ozone, irradiation or ultrasound to zap critters in ballast. Many have restraints, such as cost, size or an inability to kill all types of organisms.
Bilkovski said his firm works to balance ecology with economics.
"We think we have the best product," he said.
Bilkovski also said he is proud that a local company is working on the problem.
"How great would it be to say 'We've got a Michigan company helping with this'?" he said.