Exotic species slip through ballast rule
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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
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
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
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
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