Patchwork ballast rules emerging to battle invaders
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   
Monday, 02 March 2009 12:28
A battle to force overseas ships to stop dumping biological pollution in the Great Lakes is taking shape in the harbors of Wisconsin.

The state Department of Natural Resources recently released a proposed set of ballast water discharge rules for oceangoing vessels that is far stricter than anything that has been adopted by any other Great Lakes state except New York.

Ballast water is used to steady less-than-full cargo ships and is a problem for the Great Lakes because oceangoing vessels traveling from distant countries can arrive with tanks teeming with unwanted organisms. Those foreign species can wreak havoc on the environment when the ballast is flushed as cargo is loaded.

Congress has been talking about a uniform national ballast law for the better part of a decade, with little to show for it.

In the meantime, new species have continued to be detected in the lakes with distressing regularity. In the past nine years, a new species has been discovered in the lakes, on average, about every eight months - the last one being a tiny red shrimp found in Lake Michigan in late 2006.

Some ballast hitchhikers, such as quagga and zebra mussels, have already caused enormous damage - stripping the water of nutrients for native fish and leaving stinking piles of rotting algae on once pristine lakeshores. And the damage is spreading as the invaders hitch rides on pleasure boats to inland waters as far away California.

Now individual Great Lakes states are trying to fix the ballast problem on their own - something the shipping industry has long feared. Its worry is that states acting unilaterally will lead to a patchwork of inconsistent regulations that it says could be crippling for an industry that by its very nature must operate in so many jurisdictional waters.

That patchwork is starting to emerge.

Battle lines drawn

Wisconsin's decision to take a tough stand is so critical because most all the ballast water discharged in the Great Lakes by overseas vessels happens in Wisconsin and Minnesota waters at the twin ports of Duluth-Superior. Wisconsin's proposed rules, which don't kick in until 2012, require overseas ships to install water treatment systems on boats that are 100 times more stringent than what neighboring Minnesota has proposed.

Minnesota's rules also won't kick in for existing ships until 2016.

Steve Fisher of the American Great Lakes Ports Association says the shipping industry acknowledges the need for ballast treatment systems, but he fears the lines being drawn in Duluth Harbor.

"You'd never know a state line is running through the middle of it - ships that go up to that port bounce around in the harbor, picking up cargo on one side and then the other," he says.

He sees no sense in having dual regulations to protect the same body of water - the species Wisconsin wants to keep out are, of course, not going to stop at the state line if they are let loose on the Minnesota side of the border.

"Having one regulation regime on one side of the harbor doesn't make sense from an economic perspective, or an environmental perspective," he says.

Fisher says he just wants consistency, and he wants it in the form of Wisconsin adopting the weaker Minnesota rule, noting that technologies don't even exist to accomplish what Wisconsin is proposing.

Conservationists pushing for new ballast rules say they also want consistency - they'd like Minnesota to fall in line with Wisconsin's tougher proposal.

And some have altogether lost their tolerance for the overseas shipping industry.

"I'm for shutting them down," says Dan Thomas, president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council.

He points to a 2005 Joyce Foundation study that estimated the overseas shipping industry is a $55 million enterprise annually. That's the amount the study said the region saves by bringing cargo into the lakes aboard oceangoing vessels instead of by other means, such as rails, trucks, Mississippi River barge or a fleet of freighters shuttling between the East Coast and Great Lakes.

The volume of cargo entering the Great Lakes has continued to drop since that study. Last year, an average of fewer than two oceangoing ships per day entered the Great Lakes.

"We've lost a superb fishery because of the direct connection of invasive species introduced by the foreign shipping industry," Thomas says, pointing to fish population crashes on Lakes Huron and Michigan that many scientists have tied to a surge in quagga mussels.

"I hate to say this," he says, "but they really deserve what they get."

The next zebra mussel

Most Great Lakes states have decided to wait until 2016 to impose ballast discharge rules, at which time they plan to adopt standards put forward by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization. Those standards call on all the world's ship owners to install ballast treatment systems that use things such as filters, chemicals or ultraviolet light to sanitize water in the tanks to protect coastal waters across the globe.

Completely sterilizing ballast tanks is a huge challenge given their size and the tenacity of the life forms floating inside them. The proposed UN standard instead requires systems that purify water to the point that only a certain amount of organisms of a certain size are allowed per cubic meter of water. Those regulations have yet to be adopted by the world's maritime community.

Even so, companies across the globe are racing to develop treatment systems that will comply with the UN standards. The problem for the Great Lakes is that many scientists say those standards aren't protective enough to keep the next zebra mussel from invading the freshwaters of the Great Lakes.

Wisconsin environmental officials agree.

"We want to prevent new introductions, and we feel that the current (U.N.) standards aren't enough to do the job," says Wisconsin DNR's Susan Sylvester.

Under Wisconsin's rules, beginning in 2012 existing ships would have to meet standards that are 100 times more stringent than the U.N. regulations. New ships launched after 2012 would have to meet standards that are 1,000 times more. If the technology is not available by 2012, the ship owners will have to comply with only the U.N. standards.

Minnesota environmental regulators say they have worked closely with their counterparts in Wisconsin but the two states disagree about how to best move forward.

"The reason Minnesota chose (U.N.) standards is that most of the technology development around the world has been working toward (that) standard, so that is the number we felt gave us the best chance to get ballast water treatment by 2016," said Jeff Stollenwerk of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Stollenwerk says that ballast treatment systems that meet U.N. standards likely will also be able to meet what Wisconsin is proposing.

"The standards, though they appear very different, are probably not all that far apart," he says. "We've been working with Wisconsin folks quite a bit and feel like we're agreeing with one another much more than we're disagreeing."

Minnesota also plans to require similar ballast treatment systems by 2016 for the big so-called laker fleet of cargo haulers that never leave the Great Lakes; Wisconsin doesn't initially plan to require lakers to install the systems. Those ships, while they don't bring in new organisms to the lakes, can be responsible for spreading them once they arrive.

Feds to the rescue?

This conflict is not headed for friendly resolution.

Minnesota has already been sued by conservationists who think the state's rule is too weak. Wisconsin likely will also be sued by shipping advocates who fear the regulations are unworkable; New York, which has passed essentially the same rules for oceangoing vessels as Wisconsin, has already been sued by the shipping industry.

Everyone agrees that the best solution is for the federal government to step in and lay down a single standard for the whole country, and it could happen.

Just last week, new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said she would reconsider the Bush administration's decision to essentially do nothing new to protect the Great Lakes, even though the federal government last year was ordered by the courts to start treating ballast water like any other pollutant under the Clean Water Act.

The only thing the federal government requires now is that overseas ships flush their ballast tanks with salt water in mid-ocean before they arrive in the lakes. The Wisconsin DNR is done waiting for it to require anything more, and it isn't shrinking from the controversy.

"A federal solution makes a whole lot more sense than doing this on a state-by-state basis," says Todd Ambs, administrator for the DNR's water division. "But we didn't feel like we could wait."
 
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