Invaders in ships' ballast targeted
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
WTMJ-TV and JSOnline.com
Posted on MSNBC News April 21, 2005
It has been nearly 17 years since a college student on
a field trip plucked the first zebra mussel from the waters
of the Great Lakes, signaling the first wave of an invasion
that has likely altered forever the world's largest freshwater
system and is costing an estimated $3 billion per decade
in economic damages to regional industries.
Scientists, conservationists and some politicians contend
that woefully little has been done to protect the world's
largest freshwater system from new ship-borne invaders
since that time. The door through which the zebra mussel
entered the Great Lakes remains essentially wide open,
and researchers report that a new species is discovered,
on average, every eight months. Most arrive as stowaways
in the ship-stabilizing ballast tanks of the oceangoing
freighters that ply the St. Lawrence Seaway.
That may soon change, because the fight to protect the
lakes from this biological pollution is picking up steam
in the courts, in Congress and in the individual states
that border the lakes. Even the U.S. armed forces may
be wading deeper into the battle.
The fight has four fronts:
• Last Wednesday, members of Congress, for the third
year in a row, introduced legislation that would mandate
tougher ballast regulations for the lakes. The proposed
National Aquatic Invasive Species Act of 2005 is similar
to pieces that stalled in Congress the previous two years.
Its failure to pass so far is due, at least in part, to
concerns about how the law could hurt private property
owners, similar to some controversial aspects of the federal
law to protect endangered species.
"It's just a matter of letting people know that
is not the case," said Jennifer Nalbone of the conservation
group Great Lakes United. "It (the proposed law)
is protecting both public and private interests."
The bill has bipartisan support.
"As a Great Lakes senator, I feel special responsibility
to protect these great national treasures, which are the
source of drinking water for more than 30 million people,"
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said last week in a news
"If we spend millions preventing these pests from
entering our waters, we can avoid spending billions trying
to manage them once they are here," added Michigan
Rep. Vernon Ehlers, a Grand Rapids Republican, in his
• On March 31, a federal judge in northern California
ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has a responsibility
to regulate ballast water discharges under the Clean Water
For years, the EPA has declined to require permits for
such discharges, claiming that the job of regulating ballast
water is best left to the U.S. Coast Guard.
A coalition of environmental groups first petitioned
the EPA six years ago to begin applying the landmark 1972
federal water law to ballast discharges. After several
years of review, the EPA declined. Conservationists sued
in the fall of 2003. EPA officials say they are mulling
an appeal of U.S. District Judge Susan Illston's ruling,
but have declined to comment further.
• Earlier in March, a Michigan legislator frustrated
by the slow pace of federal efforts to step up protections
for the lakes proposed that the eight individual Great
Lakes states take matters into their own hands. The idea
is for the states to use their own water-pollution laws
to create uniform - and stiffer - rules concerning contaminated
• Earlier this year, the Coast Guard announced that it
would revisit its ballast water monitoring practices.
It will hold a public hearing on the matter May 9 in Cleveland,
a tacit acknowledgment of the inadequacy of the existing
inspection system intended to ensure that foreign organisms
are not accidentally released into the lakes.
Big loophole in existing law
Ballast water is used to stabilize empty vessels and
stop them from bobbing like corks in open water.
The problem is that ballast taken on in foreign ports
may be teeming with aquatic life not native to the Great
Lakes. Historically, when the ships arrived in the Great
Lakes, raw ballast water was dumped in exchange for payloads
such as coal and ore.
The zebra mussel invasion that began in 1988 prompted
tougher regulations. The prolific filter feeders, native
to the Caspian Sea region, have been blamed for everything
from clogging water intake pipes at power plants and city
water systems to ravaging the base of the lakes' native
food chain, which could lead to profound impacts on its
$4.5 billion fishing industry.
Two years after the first zebra mussel was discovered,
the U.S. government asked Great Lakes-bound shippers to
voluntarily exchange their freshwater ballast in mid-trip
for the saltwater of the open ocean. The theory is that
the open ocean contains fewer organisms, and the ones
that might get sucked into ballast tanks are saltwater
natives that would have trouble surviving in the Great
In 1993, the U.S. made the exchanges mandatory, but the
law contained a gaping loophole: As many as 80% of the
ships arriving from foreign ports are loaded with cargo
and don't carry ballast water. Those ships are exempt
from the exchange requirements. But those "empty"
ballast tanks can still carry sludge teaming with life,
along with residual pools of ballast water.
Those ships can unload their cargo at their first port
of call in the Great Lakes and then pick up ballast water
before steaming to another Great Lakes port. That water
mixes with the ballast sludge, and foreign species can
then escape when that water gets dumped in exchange for
a new load of cargo.
Of the four efforts under way to protect the lakes, some
conservationists say they would prefer the federal legislation
path, given the EPA and Coast Guard's history of moving
slowly, and the fact that a hodgepodge of state laws could
prove tricky, both to enforce and for the ships trying
to do business in the multi-jurisdictional waters.
"The bottom line is that we want all these efforts
to move forward, because one of them is going to work,"
Nalbone said. "Everyone wants the federal legislation
and federal leadership, but I think there is some doubt
that we'll get it soon enough."
The shippers, meanwhile, acknowledge that there is a
problem, but contend it is not one that is easily solved.
Helen Brohl, executive director of the U.S. Great Lakes
Shipping Association, said the problem is finding a cost-effective
technology that can kill ballast dwellers but not create
other pollution problems for the lakes.
She also thinks the Coast Guard is the best agency to
handle ballast regulations.
"Because the Coast Guard deals with vessels - vessel
arrival, vessel reporting, vessel inspection - it doesn't
make a lot of sense for the EPA to get into that business,"
Brohl said another challenge is devising standards and
technology that can allow ballast water to be analyzed
and certified as "clean," something that is
being worked on now.
"People like to simplify the issue," Brohl
said. "To say that the federal government has been
dragging their feet is just so wrong."