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U.N. plan not enough to stop Great Lakes invaders, critics say
By Edward Hoogterp
Booth Newspapers
02/24/04


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 Great Lakes.

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 border.

"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 water.

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 location.

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.

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