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Great Lakes Article:

Exotic species slip through ballast rule loophole

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
John Veysey

MILWAUKEE - (KRT) - Invasive plants and animals can spread like cancer after reaching the Great Lakes. Exotics such as the infamous zebra mussel can ravage the lakes' ecosystems, poison the water and kill off native species. Invasives cannot be eliminated once they're here, and their spread cannot be stopped.

First seen in Lake Erie in 1988, zebra mussels have since spread to over 47 Wisconsin lakes and rivers, including Lake Geneva, Delavan Lake, and the Wisconsin River. Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager hopes to stop new invasives from reaching the Great Lakes. On July 15, she joined six other Great Lakes states in actions intended to push the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency into closing regulatory loopholes that allow ocean-going vessels to discharge contaminated ballast water in the Great Lakes.

This water balances large ships when they're not completely full, but unwelcome species can hide in the tanks and hitchhike around the globe. That's how the zebra mussel arrived from western Russia, and it's not alone. Thirty-six of the 50 exotic species that have arrived since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 have come from untreated ballast water, according to Jennifer Nalbone of Great Lakes United, an environmental advocacy group. The organization joined the Great Lakes states in petitioning the Coast Guard.

An estimated $100 million is spent each year to repair and control zebra mussel damage at water filtration and electrical power plants. Over 170 other non-native marauders, including Eurasian milfoil and round gobys, are also pushing their way into waterways. From the Great Lakes, exotics can spread anywhere. "It's as if these invaders have a mainline into the heart of North America," said Nalbone.

Everybody agrees that ballast water is the biggest threat. "The Commandant has called this his number one environmental problem," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet. But it's not clear who's going to solve it. "We don't have a lot of leadership on the federal level," said Nalbone. "A lot of different agencies have responsibilities, but there's no comprehensive plan." And there's no help from Canada.

Professor Hugh MacIssac, an invasive species researcher at the University of Windsor-Ontario, laughed when asked about Canadian regulations. "We don't have any," he said. "As it stands right now, we're relying on U.S. initiatives to protect the lakes from ships." A congressional mandate requires the Coast Guard to regulate ballast water and prevent the discharge of invasive species. But there's a loophole in current rules, say Lautenschlager and the attorneys general of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania.

Many of the ocean ships enter the Great Lakes full of cargo, and must empty their ballast tanks to stay afloat. The Coast Guard classifies these ships as having "no ballast on board," and exempts them from scrutiny. The states want the Coast Guard to reconsider. "Even though the ships say they're discharging all of their ballast water in salt water, they're not," said Tom Dawson, director of the Wisconsin Department of Justice's environmental protection unit. "There's always a sludge that remains."

As the ships travel throughout the Great Lakes, they can take on ballast water, which then mixes with the sediments. If this water is discharged, invasive species buried in the sludge can enter the lakes. The states also filed a "friend of the court" brief in a case against the EPA. This brief argues that ships discharging ballast water and invasive species are subject to the Clean Water Act. "It's a discharge of pollutants from a point source into a water inside the U.S.," said Dawson. The EPA categorically exempts such discharges from regulation under the Clean Water Act.

But the EPA is well aware of the problem. In a letter to the Indiana attorney general, EPA acting Assistant Administrator Benjamin Grumbles wrote, "The invasives issue deserves priority attention." Grumbles argues that the problem will be solved through cooperation, not litigation. "I am confident that the Coast Guard's vast knowledge of vessel operations coupled with EPA's environmental expertise will result in NISA (National Invasive Species Act) regulations that protect the environment and are workable for vessel operators."

"We very much want to come up with a standard that is based on science and is not simply arbitrary," said the Coast Guard's Shifflet. By nurturing new technologies and diagnostic tools, Coast Guard officials want to stop invasives without the burden of new regulations.

The Great Lakes states want action now. "I applaud two groups," said the University of Windsor's MacIssac. "The shippers have been extremely helpful. I think they realize there's a major problem here, and they want to be part of the solution. "And secondly, I applaud the Great Lakes governors. I think that what the governors are trying to do is to force the hands of the federal government to make them act. "I give them a lot of credit for their initiative."

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