U.N. plan not enough to stop Great
Lakes invaders, critics say
By Edward Hoogterp
LANSING -- A United Nations agency has reached an agreement
that may someday keep unwanted plants and animals from
following the route that brought zebra mussels into the
But lake advocates say the Global Ballast Water Convention,
signed Feb. 13 in London, is too little and too slow.
"The time frame is so far out there, if we were
to think of when this will be imposed on every one of
the 10,000 ships floating on the ocean, it's too late,"
said Dennis Schornack, U.S. section chair of the International
Joint Commission, which oversees waterways on the U.S.-Canada
"It's nine to 15 years down the road."
Schornack and others said the London agreement may speed
the drive for a federal law to protect the Great Lakes
and other U.S. waters from invasive species carried in
the ballast of ocean-going ships.
"What we did win (in London) is the right for each
nation to have standards tougher than what are defined
in the treaty," U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand
Rapids, who is sponsoring legislation to expand the National
Aquatic Invasive Species Act, said Monday.
The legislation would give the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency and the Coast Guard four years to create a permanent
standard for filtering out or killing plants and animals
that could otherwise be carried from port to port in ballast
It also would restrict importation of aquatic plants
and animals that could escape and cause problems in lakes
or streams. That provision is designed to deal with species
such as Asian carp, which were imported to control weeds
in fish farms but are now crowding out native fish from
parts of the Mississippi River system. The legislation
is expected to come up for committee hearings in March.
The ballast-water issue has been simmering for years,
with environmentalists calling for more regulation, and
shippers expressing concern about added costs.
Large ships balance their cargo loads by pumping sea
water into ballast tanks, located in the hull.
A lightly loaded vessel may suck in thousands of gallons
of water as it sets out from one harbor, then pump out
most of that water when it takes on a heavy cargo at another
Unfortunately, the ballast may contain bacteria, viruses
or small aquatic animals from the first port. When it's
pumped out, those involuntary hitch-hikers are deposited
in a new home where they may have no natural enemies.
That's what happened with the zebra mussel, a small clam-like
animal that came to America in ballast water and is changing
ecosystems in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.
The mussels reproduce prolifically, and disrupt the food
chain by filtering out algae from the water. Their habit
of growing on water intake pipes has cost power plants
and public water utilities millions of dollars.
One section of Ehlers bill calls for research to develop
cost-effective methods of treating ballast water.
"There's plenty still out there to protect ourselves
from," said Allegra Cangelosi, senior policy analyst
with the Northeast-Midwest Institute, which supports the
Ehlers legislation. "There could be things that could
change life on the Great Lakes. ... Something could get
into those lakes that could make them so we couldn't swim
in them any more."
The Global Ballast Water Convention was reached after
seven years of negotiations among the United States and
other members of the International Maritime Organization.
It calls for a phased-in process to require that all ships
treat their ballast water by about 2016.
U.S. delegations during both the Clinton and Bush administrations
sought a faster timetable and stricter rules, but were
unable to win over European members. The deal must be
ratified by at least 30 nations before taking effect.
"(The IMO action) is a step in the right direction,
but ... as far as protecting the U.S. waters, it doesn't
have enough in it," Cangelosi said.