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Critics: Proposed ship ballast limits won't halt invasive species
By Jen Degregorio
Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - Lawmakers and environmentalists argued Thursday that an international plan to limit the introduction of invasive species in ships' ballast is not nearly stringent enough to protect U.S. waters.

The rules adopted last month by the International Maritime Organization of the United Nations are the first attempt at regulating and measuring organic output in ships' ballast - the water drawn into or released by a ship for balance.

But while the rules are an important first step, critics said Thursday that the international standards are still 1,000 times less stringent than U.S. officials wanted, leaving the door open to the continued introduction of foreign species that travel in ballast of ships from abroad.

Such species have upset the health of the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay and other U.S. waterways.

The bay, which receives the second-largest volume of ballast water in the nation, has seen the introduction of about 160 invasive species, like the parasite MSX and the predatory Japanese shore crab.

Those invaders are blamed for the destruction of the Chesapeake's native oyster population and commercial fishing industry.

"I think it's very important to tighten up those (ballast water) regulations. We have so many problems in the bay, we don't need anymore by introducing something else that might come through ballast water," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

The new rules, which would fully take effect in 2016, would require ships to exchange 95 percent of ballast water in mid-ocean, instead of in port, and to clean ballast water before discharging it.

They would limit the number of organisms in the cleaned ballast to 10 organisms larger than 50 micrometers per cubic meter of water. For organisms between 10 and 50 micrometers, the limit would be 10 per milliliter.

The United States had proposed a limit of .01 organisms in the same amount of ballast. But Coast Guard officials noted Thursday that the current proposal is better than the international group's original call for a 100-organism concentration.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thomas Gilmour testified that the United States should first try to achieve the international standard and worry about mandating a stricter one after that.

"It's not an exact science," Gilmour said, noting that industrial organic-output controls are still developing and nothing can be done without more studies.

Witnesses testifying before two subcommittees of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure estimated that implementing even the current international proposal could cost about $1 million per ship.

Not only is ballast water an "expensive problem," but witnesses differed on whether the technology for any organic-output control even exists.

Roger Mann, a scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, testified that it is "easy" to limit organisms larger than 50 micrometers from seeping through the water by using a simple filter.

But Joseph Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, testified that Mann's assertion only worked in experimental situations with thousands of gallons of water, while industrial ships can filter as much as 16 million gallons per day.

Mann was not dissuaded.

"I do think we can do better and I do think that we should do better," he said.

The only current restrictions on ballast water come from the 1990 National Invasive Species Act, which requires ships going into the Great Lakes or the Hudson River to exchange ballast 200 miles from shore. It only recommended that other ships do the same.

But the Coast Guard is now in the process of making the ballast-exchange rule mandatory for all ships, after a 2002 study showed that a voluntary program was ineffective at stopping invasive species.

That rule could take effect as early as this summer.

"This is a problem more urgent than many people would expect," Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, Md., said at Thursday's hearing.

Despite the debate, Gilchrest said he was heartened that some standard was finally established. Any standard is better than no standard when it comes to decreasing the spread of invasive species, Gilchrest said.

"I think it can significantly improve our economy, especially in those areas like the bay that depend on natural resources for economic viability," he said. "What the United States needs to do is take a leadership role and accelerate that process and have stricter standards."

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