State's proposed ballast rules draw fire, praise
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   
Wednesday, 25 March 2009 19:08
If the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wanted to get the shipping industry's attention by proposing some of the nation's toughest ballast discharge rules to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species, it has succeeded.

About 90 people turned out at a public hearing Monday on new rules that would force the overseas shipping industry to install ballast treatment systems by 2012. Advocates of the shipping industry showed up in force to say the DNR is playing a dangerous game with the state's economy.

"Is Wisconsin's intent to propose a permit in order to create a level of confusion and outrage that will force the federal government to act?" asked Andrew Lisak of Development Association Inc., based in Superior. "If it is, it's a dangerous game of chicken in which to engage. This is not a game. This is not a sport."

DNR officials have said they would prefer that Congress pass an overarching ballast bill to protect all the Great Lakes waters from the relatively tiny number of oceangoing vessels that visit the lakes each year. Federal lawmakers have been trying to do that for the better part of a decade, but have not succeeded.

In the meantime, new species have continued to be detected in the lakes. Overseas ships - which account for less than 7% of the traffic on the Great Lakes - have been blamed for the introduction of 57 foreign species since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened Great Lakes ports to global traffic 50 years ago. 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 economic and ecological damage in fish population crashes, fouled beaches and plugged intake pipes for water-dependent industries.

Last month, the DNR followed the lead of several other Great Lakes states and proposed its own rules. They are far more stringent than those of any other Great Lakes state except New York.

Shipping industry advocates fear the rules will drive shipping business elsewhere. Conservationists say the state can't afford not to take strong action.

"I spend virtually all my time talking and listening to the sportsmen and women in the state, and when it comes to the discharge of ballast water from international ships, they say, 'When will the shipping industry start acting responsibly and clean up the ballast water discharges?' " George Meyer of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation testified Monday. "Hopefully it will be before the $7 billion a year Great Lakes fishery is totally collapsed."

Neighbor states' action

Other Great Lakes states have also stopped depending on Congress.

Most 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 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.

Sterilizing ballast tanks is a huge challenge given their size and the durability of the life forms inside them. The proposed U.N. standards instead require that systems purify water to the point that it contains only a certain amount of organisms of a certain size per cubic meter of water. Those regulations have yet to be adopted by the world's maritime states.

Even so, companies are racing to develop treatment systems that will comply with the U.N. standards. The problem for the Great Lakes is that many scientists say those standards were developed to protect saltwater ports and may not be stringent enough to keep the next zebra mussel from invading the world's largest freshwater system.

Wisconsin environmental officials agree, and under the state's proposed rule, beginning in 2012 existing ships would have to meet standards that are 100 times more stringent than the U.N. regulations. Ships launched after 2012 would have to meet standards that are 1,000 times more stringent. If the technology is not available by 2012, ship owners operating in Wisconsin waters would have to comply with only the U.N. standards.

Wisconsin's decision to take a tough stand is critical because most all the ballast water discharges in the Great Lakes by overseas vessels happen in Wisconsin and Minnesota waters at the twin ports of Duluth-Superior.

Neighboring Minnesota has decided on a different tack. It's going to require the weaker U.N. standard and won't demand ballast treatment systems for existing ships until 2016.

Backers of the Wisconsin rule agree the state should not act alone; they want Minnesota and other states to follow Wisconsin's lead.

Millions of dollars at stake

Shipping industry advocates see Wisconsin's move as anti-business. They also say it will not do anything to stop an unwanted species from swimming across the invisible state border in Duluth Harbor.

"To set a standard that will give ships an incentive to go to ports outside Wisconsin is wrong," Superior Mayor David Ross said at a lakeside news conference just before the public hearing Monday. "This is absolutely the worst time to enact a proposal that isolates Wisconsin, kills jobs and hurts our ports."

Doing nothing also carries big economic consequences. The University of Notre Dame released a study last year that said shipborne invaders that are already here cost the region at least $200 million annually.

A 2005 Joyce Foundation study, meanwhile, estimated that 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 federal government requires overseas ships to flush their ballast tanks with salt water in mid-ocean before they arrive in the Great Lakes. Scientists say this goes a long way - but not all the way - in protecting the lakes from unwanted species.

Everyone, including shipping industry advocates, agrees the best solution is for the federal government to develop a single standard for the whole country.

That could be happening.

Last month, new Environmental Protection Agency 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.

U.S. Coast Guard officials say they are poised to release their own ballast regulations.

Steve Fisher of the American Great Lakes Ports Association says nobody should expect the problem to be solved soon. He testified Monday that Wisconsin's deadline to have ballast treatment systems in place by 2012 is "absolutely unworkable."

He is also dubious that Wisconsin's tougher standards will force the industry to develop better ballast treatment technology, something the DNR is banking on. Wisconsin just isn't a big enough economic engine to force such changes on the industry, he said.

"Everyone believes this issue would have preferably been addressed yesterday," he testified. "But we are where we are today."

And where we are, he said outside the public hearing, is more than three years away from being able to require ships to install ballast treatment systems.
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