Lake states consider tougher freighter
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
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
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.