The debate over ocean freighters fouling the Great Lakes with exotic
species has erupted into a verbal war, with new battles being waged in
federal court, Congress and the court of public opinion.
Nine industry groups in Canada, the U.S. and Barbados -- which represent ocean freighters that transport cargo on the Great Lakes -- sued the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality this week. The groups claim the state's new ballast water law, which requires ocean ships to avoid discharging ballast water or sanitize ballast tanks with one of four state-approved technologies, is unconstitutional, unjustified and unfair.
The shipping industry wants the federal government, not individual states, to set standards for ballast water discharges in the Great Lakes.
"The (Michigan) ballast water statute places unreasonable burdens on interstate commerce and is clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits gained," according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit.
The groups that filed the lawsuit, which included FEDNAV Limited in Montreal and the Indiana-based U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association, claimed the "overwhelming majority of (their) oceangoing vessels do not discharge ballast water into the waters of the state of Michigan and do not ... discharge ballast waters containing aquatic invasive species."
Ocean freighters, known as "salties," account for 5 percent of the cargo moved on the Great Lakes, with about 220 ships entering the lakes annually, according to government data. But ocean freighters have imported the majority of exotic species found in the Great Lakes over the past 50 years, including zebra and quagga mussels, goby, ruffe and the spiny water flea, according to scientific studies.
"It's disappointing that these groups would challenge (Michigan's ballast water) law that will provide the Great Lakes with greatly needed protections from invasive species," DEQ spokesman Bob McCann said. "Invasive species have already had devastating impacts on the ecology of our Great Lakes and literally cost the region billions of dollars every year trying to control them."
McCann said the ballast water law is "Michigan's way of saying enough is enough. We must make every effort to stop these invaders from reaching our waters."
Environmentalists were more blunt.
"What's wrong with this picture? The same shippers that brought us zebra mussels are now suing Michigan to stop us from protecting ourselves from invasive species," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor.
Invasive species cause about $200 million in ecological and economic losses each year, according to published studies. The zebra mussel, imported to the lakes via ballast water in 1988, has caused $3.1 billion in damages, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
There are currently 183 exotic species in the Great Lakes. The most recent discovery was a foreign shrimp, the bloody red mysid, found last year in Muskegon Lake.
Dirty ballast water discharged from ocean freighters also is suspected of importing a deadly fish virus, called VHS, to the Great Lakes in 2005. The virus has spread across lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron since then, killing tens of thousands of fish; some biologists expect the virus to cause fish kills in Lake Michigan fish this year or next.
The shipping industry lawsuit said federal rules pre-empt the states from regulating ballast water discharges from freighters. It also claims Michigan's law is discriminatory because it only applies to ocean ships and does not affect so-called "lakers," freighters that only move cargo within the five Great Lakes.
Studies have found that lakers do not import exotic species into the Great Lakes because they never leave the lakes.
Michigan was the first Great Lakes state or Canadian province to require ocean freighters to obtain a permit to conduct port operations. Other states are now considering similar laws.
Congress also is considering legislation that would require all ships entering the Great Lakes sanitize ballast water tanks to prevent the introduction of more exotic species. But that legislation, sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, would not take effect until 2012 if it is approved.
Michigan passed its law after the U.S. and Canadian governments failed to stem the tide of exotic species entering the Great Lakes in the ballast water of ocean freighters.
Frustrated by the increasing number of exotic species in the lakes -- now at 183, with a new species showing up roughly every eight months -- some groups are calling for drastic action.
"Invasive species are crippling our lakes, endangering jobs and health and burdening our economy," said Jim Mahon, president of Canadian Autoworkers Local 1520 in London, Ontario. "Until the U.S. and Canadian governments stand up and stop this onslaught, we endorse a moratorium on the handful of ocean vessels that currently enter the Great Lakes."