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Great Lakes Article:

Invaders in ships' ballast targeted
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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 release.

"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 own release.

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 Act.

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 ballast.

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 Lakes.

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," she said.

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."

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