Bush administration says EPA won't
regulate ships' ballast water
By Paul Rogers
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Skirting what some scientists say is the most significant
water quality threat to San Francisco Bay and other ports
- invasive species - the Bush administration on Tuesday
announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
will not regulate ballast water discharges from ships.
A coalition of 15 environmental and fishing groups had
asked the EPA to declare that ballast water was a pollutant
that could be regulated under the federal Clean Water
That tactic represents the best hope, the groups said,
of reigning in the billions of tiny crabs, fish, clams,
plants and other organisms that are sucked into ships'
ballast tanks in foreign harbors, and then pumped out
in U.S. waters when they unload cargo. The tiny stowaways
kill native species, clog water pipes and disrupt the
San Francisco Bay is among the most severely affected
places in North America. A study done in 1998 found that
there were at least 234 invasive species in the bay, many
of which had no natural predators and were crowding out
native species for food and habitat.
Some species, such as the Chinese mitten crab, also have
cost millions to remove from water treatment systems and
water pipes after they have moved up the bay's delta and
clogged water facilities at the Central Valley Project.
Mitten crabs also have burrowed into levees around the
bay and delta, increasing flood risks.
Similarly, the hardy zebra mussel, which federal officials
estimate will cost $5 billion to remove from the Great
Lakes, has jammed water pipes and cooling systems at power
plants across the Midwest, and has crowded out native
clams and fish.
But the EPA on Tuesday said it would not step in. The
Coast Guard has already taken the lead in dealing with
the problem, EPA officials said, and it would be duplicative
if EPA also began regulating commercial shipping.
"We consider ballast water and invasive species
a real concern," said Jim Hanlon, EPA's director
of wastewater management in Washington, D.C.
"But EPA really doesn't have a presence on vessels
across the U.S. The Coast Guard is the arm of the government
there. Vessels are part of their mission. Our feeling
is that adding ballast water to their responsibilities
is better than adding vessel management to EPA's."
Environmental groups said it is likely they will now
sue the EPA to attempt to convince a judge to force the
agency to use the Clean Water Act in the fight against
"EPA has completely abdicated its responsibility,"
said Linda Sheehan, Pacific Region director of the Ocean
Conservancy, an environmental group based in San Francisco.
"Invasive species are like chemical pollutants that
mate. Once they are here they are here to stay. They cost
hundreds of millions of dollars a year to keep in check,
and environmentally they push threatened and endangered
species over the edge."
Were EPA to regulate ballast water under the Clean Water
Act, it could declare large cargo ships, oil tankers and
other vessels as "point sources" of water pollution
- like floating factories. Under the Clean Water Act,
such sources require permits and can be fined for exceeding
pollution levels in those permits.
Deborah Sivas, an attorney with the Earthjustice Environmental
Law Clinic at Stanford University, said although the Coast
Guard has put in place some regulations, they are voluntary
nearly everywhere in the United States.
The Clean Water Act also allows citizen suits, she said,
which can increase enforcement.
"This is an opportunity for EPA to take the lead,"
she said. "Until you get some kind of federal permits
in place, you aren't going to have the industry moving
on it. You need the legal leverage."
California has among the toughest ballast water laws
in the nation. A law passed by former Assemblyman Ted
Lempert, D-Palo Alto, in 1999 required ships from foreign
ports to exchange their ballast water 200 miles from the
California coastline. Critics say it is a good start,
but that there is little enforcement. Oregon and Washington
have copied it.
"There's virtually no monitoring and enforcement,"
said Andrew Cohen, director of the biological invasions
program at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, in Oakland.
"Even if caught red handed, the maximum penalty is
only $5,000. These are multi-million dollar vessels. That
level of fine is not much to change their behavior."
This summer, the Coast Guard began a process to write
a similar nationwide rule that would largely mirror California's.
Meanwhile researchers are working on systems, such as
ozone treatment and nitrogen gas, that could kill the
"We're on top of it," said John Berge, vice
president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association
in San Francisco.
"We are working together with the environmental
community and the state agencies to tackle this difficult
problem. Eventually we hope to have technology develop
that will provide onboard treatment of ballast water of
ships so there is zero discharge. We're confident that