Editorial: Protecting the Great Lakes
Published January 24, 2008
An ice floe at sea moves faster than Congress is proceeding on pending legislation to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species and viruses that arrive in the ballast water of foreign ships.
For that reason, we welcome an interim measure that would require salt-water freighters to sanitize their ballast tanks with seawater before they reach American waters. It's better than nothing and better than waiting for Congress to pass a new law.
Ships from the Black Sea already have transported such species as zebra and quagga mussels, which have wreaked havoc on the lakes and the fishing and tourism industries. More than 180 foreign species have been identified, and others are still being discovered.
They have upset the lakes' ecosystem and clogged municipal intake pipes, while at least one of the viruses that inhabit ballast sediment is behind the destructive malady known as viral hemorrhagic septicemia, which causes lake fish to bleed to death.
Governors from all eight Great Lakes states have asked Congress to take action, but they're still waiting.
In the meantime, the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., the Great Lakes shipping division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has promulgated a rule that will require oceangoing ships to flush their ballast tanks with seawater at least 200 nautical miles from U.S. shores.
The salt water is supposed to kill freshwater species. Even ships with little water or sediment will be required to flush their tanks, since the invasive critters can survive in small amounts.
The regulations, proposed on Jan. 16, are the same as those Canada imposed two years ago. Ships bound for ports on the St. Lawrence Seaway will be required to dump their ballast water and flush the tanks with salt water. Ships that don't do this could be turned around or not allowed to discharge ballast while in the Great Lakes, and could face fines of $36,325 for each violation.
The rule is expected to take effect at the start of the spring shipping season. Experts say the process won't stop all invasive species, as some are bound to hide in ships' hulls or survive the salt water. A proposal by former Michigan Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema to flush the tanks with chlorine deserved more consideration than it received. Still, the plan is better than waiting for slow-moving congressmen.
To no one's surprise, the shipping industry at first balked at the plan before agreeing, claiming that it will be too costly. But the zebra mussels and other invasive species that already have arrived from abroad have proven far more costly to the rest of us. The region's shipping industry has been endangered to the tune of $4.5 billion and, without effective measures in place, it will only get worse.