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Great Lakes Article:

Lake states consider tougher freighter rules
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted March 17th, 2005

Frustrated by what many see as federal foot-dragging in the fight to keep new invasive species from further ravaging the Great Lakes food web, a Michigan legislator is proposing Great Lakes states deal with the problem on their own.

Federal law created after the 1988 zebra mussel invasion requires freighters arriving from foreign ports to exchange their ballast water in the open ocean before arriving in the Great Lakes. The idea is to use ocean saltwater to kill freshwater organisms hitching a ride in a freighter's ballast tanks, which help stabilize an empty vessel in open water.

The problem is that up to 90 percent of freighters arriving in the Great Lakes have bellies loaded with cargo and are consequently exempt from the ballast exchange requirements.

But a freighter's "empty" ballast tanks still can carry loads of organism-rich sludge, as well as permanent pools of residual ballast water. Those ships arrive in the Great Lakes and drop off their cargo at one port and then take on ballast water before steaming on to the next port. That water mixes with the ballast sludge, and when it's dumped at the next Great Lakes port, fugitive organisms can escape into the lakes.

And that, scientists say, is likely the main reason why a new foreign species is discovered in the Great Lakes at a rate of about one every eight months.

With legislation to tighten the loophole stalled in Congress for about two years, this week Republican Patty Birkholz, a Michigan state senator, said she will pursue state laws to keep freighter-borne invaders at bay.

The idea is for the eight Great Lakes states to use their own water-pollution laws to create uniform - and stiffer - rules concerning contaminated ballast. It is an idea that may catch on in Wisconsin, home to 1,017 miles of Great Lakes shoreline on Michigan and Superior.

"We're definitely going to be taking a close look at it," said Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee), who was scheduled to attend a meeting in Chicago today with legislators from the other Great Lakes states to discuss this issue, among others. "There have to be consequences (for dumping contaminated ballast water) because the consequences for our Great Lakes are very real."

Zebra mussels, which scientists believe colonized the Great Lakes by hitching a ride in ballast water, are a prime example of the havoc and expense a non-native species can wreak on the world's largest freshwater system. The fingernail-sized, filter-feeding mollusks were first discovered in Great Lakes water in the summer of 1998. They rapidly spread across the region, clogging industrial water intake pipes and disrupting the bottom of the lakes' food web, which, in turn, threatens the Great Lakes' billion dollar recreational fishing industry.

In 2002, the federal government estimated the cost of the mussel invasion over the next 10 years could top $3 billion.

Jordan Lubetkin of the National Wildlife Federation called Birkholz's plan to take on the issue on a state-by-state basis "an innovative and enterprising solution."

"I hope it works," he said.

Some wonder whether such an approach would interfere with federal commerce rules.

"That has always been a concern, and that's why the focus has always been at the federal level," said Todd Ambs, administrator of the water division for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

And a regional go-it-alone philosophy is precisely what the shipping industry fears. The worry is a hodgepodge of rules could cripple a globe-roaming freighter's ability to do business.

Earlier this winter, the U.S. Coast Guard quietly announced it would revisit its ballast water monitoring practice. The Coast Guard is responsible for inspecting ships to ensure ballast water exchange rules are followed.

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