States Join Suit in Effort To Protect
the Great Lakes
By Anthony DePalma
New York Times
Published July 17, 2004
New York and six other states have joined a federal lawsuit
that seeks to force the United States Environmental Protection
Agency to do more to prevent foreign species of fish and
plants from invading the Great Lakes. Those species can
cause billions of dollars in damage and crowd out indigenous
The states, all of them touching on the Great Lakes, announced
on Thursday that they wanted the agency to take an active
role in enforcing regulations that control the discharge
of ballast water from oceangoing vessels.
Ballast water, which ships take on in foreign ports for
balance under light loads, can include species of plants
and animals - like the zebra mussel - that can cause environmental
havoc because they have no natural predators or controls
in the Great Lakes to keep them from multiplying prolifically.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate
ballast water discharges, leaving that responsibility
to the United States Coast Guard. The states, according
to their "friend of the court" brief filed on
Thursday, contend that the E.P.A.'s refusal to regulate
ballast discharges violates provisions of the Clean Water
The five Great Lakes hold 95 percent of the fresh surface
water in the United States and provide drinking water
for more than 33 million people in the United States and
"The exotic species of fish, mussels and plants
contained in these discharges multiply at fantastic rates
and overwhelm our ecosystem," said Eliot Spitzer,
the New York attorney general. "The federal government
can and must be more aggressive in combating this problem,
which each year costs Great Lakes communities billions
of dollars in damages."
Peter Lehner, chief of the environmental bureau in Mr.
Spitzer's office, said foreign-owned ships that come to
the Great Lakes from other freshwater ports, like those
in the Black and Caspian Seas, are the principal transporters
of invasive species. They make 500 to 600 voyages a year
to the Great Lakes, most without any inspection of their
The E.P.A. defended its decision not to police ballast
discharges but instead to work with the Coast Guard to
carry out the National Invasive Species Act, a law passed
to fight the introduction of exotic and invasive species
in ballast water. "We believe the quickest, most
effective route to restore and maintain the chemical,
physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters
is through prevention, not necessarily regulation,"
said Cynthia Bergman, an agency spokeswoman.
The Chamber of Shipping of America, representing American
shipowners, agreed that the introduction of invasive species
was a serious problem that ought to be strictly regulated
by the federal government. Joseph J. Cox, the group's
president, said that shipowners were experimenting with
ultraviolet rays and other environmentally sensitive methods
of neutralizing ballast water, but that the techniques
were not ready for large-scale industrial use.
The states joined a lawsuit filed in December by several
environmental groups, including Northwest Environmental
While they want the E.P.A. to address the ballast problem,
the states have also petitioned the Coast Guard to revise
its ballast water regulations to eliminate a significant
loophole that allows most ships to go uninspected.
The Coast Guard is charged by law with ensuring that
all ships with ballast tanks do not bring invasive species
into American waters. But most foreign ships entering
the Great Lakes are fully loaded, and their ballast tanks
are empty except for a layer of sludge on the bottom of
the tanks that often includes fish eggs or marine plant
seeds. The Coast Guard considers such tanks empty and
allows the ships to bypass inspections.
But after unloading all or part of their cargo, these
ships generally take on ballast water from the Great Lakes
before going to the next port. The freshwater mixes with
the sludge and the species it holds, and can be discharged
at another American or Canadian port when the ship picks
up cargo before heading home.
Besides New York, the states involved in the petition
and supporting brief are Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota,
Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Indiana attorney
general supported the action but chose not to participate.