Will permits hurt shipping industry?
New rules may steer ships away from Michigan
The Detroit News
Published December 28, 2006
Shipping industry leaders are warning that Michigan's sour economy could take another hit if state officials move forward with a landmark plan to regulate ballast water in oceangoing ships.
Starting Monday, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will be the first in the nation to require ocean ships that load and unload cargo at Michigan ports to have a special ballast water permit.
As part of that permit, ships that plan to discharge ballast -- the water vessels take on for stability after unloading cargo -- must have approved technology on board to treat their ballast and kill any organisms they might be carrying from foreign waters.
But as of Wednesday, not a single ship owner or operator has applied for a permit, and shipping officials said it's possible none will. Rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on ballast treatment technology they say hasn't yet been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard or International Maritime Organization, ships will just go to other nearby ports in Windsor or Toledo and avoid Michigan ports altogether.
"At the end of the day, we're supportive (of protecting the Great Lakes from invasive species) but Michigan's economy is on life support right now and the last thing we need to do is export jobs and make it more difficult for Michigan corporations to get their raw materials and that's what's going to happen," said John Jamian, former director of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority and president of Seaway Great Lakes Trade Association, whose group has asked the state to delay the permits for a year.
Michigan lawmakers took action in June 2005 to crack down on ballast because for years the U.S. Coast Guard didn't require ocean ships full of cargo -- and only residual ballast -- to conduct water exchanges at sea. Studies have shown organisms can still live in residual ballast and later find their way into the Great Lakes, crowding out native species and disrupting local ecosystems.
State officials insist they've given the shipping industry a year to prepare for the new permit system and they're moving forward but keeping an eye on a bill introduced by Sens. Michael Prusi and Ken Sikkema would delay the permits until January 2008.
They say the four ballast treatment technologies they've approved -- hypochlorite treatment, chlorine dioxide, ultraviolet light radiation and deoxygenation -- are effective and environmentally sound. Estimates on the cost of the systems range from $100,000 to $300,000 per ship.
"Our interest here is not in any way to limit their ability to do business on the Great Lakes," said DEQ Spokesman Robert McCann, who noted that it's possible some ship operators may be waiting to get permits until the new shipping season starts in March. "But at the same time they have a responsibility as users of the Great Lakes to help us protect them. We're asking them to make an investment in the Great Lakes and their ultimate health."
Michigan is the first state in the nation to take such a bold approach to regulating ballast water, widely believed to be the culprit behind more than 60 percent of the roughly 180 non-native species now found in the Great Lakes, including the zebra mussel and sea lamprey.
The zebra mussel, a small mollusk that hitched a ride in a freighter from the Caspian Sea region in the 1980s, is probably the most well-known and destructive non-native species in the lakes. It has caused more than $3 billion in damage over the last decade, the DEQ estimates.
Michigan's new law pertains mainly to residual ballast. Since 1993, the U.S. Coast Guard has required ocean ships that enter the Great Lakes to conduct a ballast exchange before entering the St. Lawrence Seaway, meaning they empty their tanks at sea and take on new water to flush out any foreign species. About 500 ocean-going ships, called "salties," haul freight into the Great Lakes.
But ships full of cargo and only residual ballast were exempt from the Coast Guard's regulations. On the Great Lakes, more than 70 percent of ocean ships fall into the "NOBOB" category, which stands for "No Ballast on Board."
The Coast Guard changed its policy in 2005, instituting a voluntary exchange policy for NOBOB ships last year and Canada instituted a law in June this year that requires all ships, including those with residual ballast, to conduct exchanges.
Despite the NOBOB loophole, David Reid, senior physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, said research has shown that ballast exchanges are 90 to 95 percent effective in killing or transferring out organisms if conducted properly.
The problem with Michigan's approach, he said, is that it's not comprehensive and ships can still discharge ballast at ports in other states or provinces on the Great Lakes, possibly introducing new species in the same waters.
"There's no big net around Michigan that keeps them out," he said.
But it's a starting point, insist environmental groups, who say they've waited long enough for the federal government to take a more proactive approach to halting the spread of invasive species in the Great Lakes.
"Each day that we delay, we run the risk of yet another exotic invader being introduced into our lakes," said Sam Washington, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
Under the new permitting system, ships that don't comply will face civil action and fines of up to a maximum of $25,000 a day. The DEQ won't inspect every ship and will only have one person conducting random compliance checks, said Barry Burns, environmental quality specialist with the permit section of the DEQ's water bureau.
But enforcement could be a moot point if ships stop coming to Michigan's three primary ocean ports -- Detroit being the largest, along with Monroe and Menominee -- altogether. And shipping officials say that's likely to happen because they'll have no choice.
According to the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, the shipping of foreign goods through Michigan waters pumps $2 billion a year into the state's economy. Steel is the biggest Michigan import and if ships have to unload cargo in Toledo or Windsor, companies will have to use trucks to get those raw materials, clogging roads and driving up prices for consumers, Jamian said.
SeverStal, the former Rouge Steel Co. in Dearborn, imports 300,000 to 400,000 tons of steel a year. If ships start avoiding Detroit, it would have an "enormous impact," said one company official.
Still, state officials remain optimistic that they're moving in the right direction. McCann said several states -- Minnesota, Wisconsin and Indiana -- are watching Michigan's approach to see how it works. A similar permit system was introduced in Minnesota last year but no action was taken.
"Ultimately, this is leading by example," McCann said.
You can reach Maureen Feighan at (248) 647-7416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.