Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Federal rules urged for ballast from ships using Great Lakes

By RACHEL IOVAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Several years after Michigan and other Great Lakes states imposed tougher regulations on ships, there’s still a call by environmental groups, biologists and shippers for federal rules.

State standards for ballast developed piecemeal, and Carl Lindquist, the executive director of the Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust based in Marquette, said they were a step in the right direction. But ballast water is still carrying invasive species, he said.

“The current policy, while well-intended, is not comprehensive enough to address the issue,” said Lindquist, “The bottom line is that oceangoing ships continue to introduce invasive species into the Great Lakes ecosystem.”

A 2002 Michigan law required all vessels to report whether they’re following the best practices determined by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) to minimize the spread of invaders. Approved techniques include filtration, application of biocides or ultraviolet light, and heating methods.

Then in 2008, Michigan imposed additional regulations. They required all ships coming from the Atlantic Ocean and docking in the state to get a permit proving that treatment techniques were used at each port where they discharged ballast water. Violations carry a penalty of as much as $25,000 per day.

Ships use water for balance when they are light or have no cargo. When ships load cargo, that water is dumped in port, releasing foreign plants, animals and microorganisms.

Scientists say that ballast the main source of aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes.

Because many of those aliens have no natural predators in the Great Lakes, they colonize and flourish, forcing out native species. The zebra mussel, round goby, spiny water flea and Eurasian ruffe are among the most ecologically and economically harmful invasive species brought into the lakes through ballast water, according to the DNRE.

Jay Lennon, a microbiology professor at Michigan State University, said it’s hard to determine if the regulations have averted additional invasions, “but we know that not regulating ballast water is not a good thing,”

A leading industry group, the Lake Carrier’s Association, says oceangoing vessels bring in invasive species, but Glen Nekvasil, the vice president of corporate communications for the association, said environmental organizations have been pushing nonoceangoing vessels, or lakers, to treat their ballast the same way.

The association, based in Cleveland, represents shipping companies that transport cargo within the Great Lakes.

Nekvasil said only oceangoing ships bring in invasive species, so treating ballast of lakers won’t stop their spread.

“Once something is in the system and has taken root, eradication is impossible and it’s going to spread,” Nekvasil said, “The lakes are interconnected, so even if we treat our ballast, species can still swim off on their own.”

Linquist, of the Superior Watershed Partnership, said although lakers aren’t to blame for introducing invasive species, they can speed their spread “exponentially” by transporting them from lake to lake.

Lindquist acknowledged that recreational and fishing boats also spread invaders but said the shipping industry should set the example.

Nekvasil said that while some treatment systems have been approved, most are compatible only with oceangoing vessels.

“Our ships are in and out of port in 10 hours or less, and the treatment systems are for ships in port for a day and a half,” Nekvasil said, “It would fail on our ships.”

Nekvasil noted that ballast water flows out of lakers at a rate of 80,000 gallons per minute, enough to fill roughly eight Olympic-sized swimming pools per hour.

Lakers aren’t required to treat ballast water before dumping it in ports. They must, however, report whether they discharged water using techniques recommended by the DNRE. They include minimizing uptake in shallow water, in areas where harmful pathogens are known to occur and at night.

Barry Burns of the DNRE’s Water Bureau said, “All they have to do is check a box to say they’re complying with the rules. They’re saying that they comply but there’s no enforcement.”

For example, he said he doubts that a ship docking at night would wait until morning to leave if it’s done unloading and has another shipment waiting.

“Their business is to keep moving,” Burns said.

Despite disagreements about how much state regulations protect the lakes, interest groups agree that a federal standard is needed.

The Lake Carrier Association’s Nekvasil said it’s difficult for shippers to comply with each state’s separate standards.

“We have to do this in Michigan, that in Wisconsin and something else in Minnesota,” Nekvasil said.

DNRE’s Burns said, “We’ve been pushing for years for tougher requirements for ballast water on ships, but the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been fighting us all the way.

“The feds are in the drivers seat on this,” he said.

Burns said an EPA advisory board is working on a standard for all U.S. ports.

And Linquist said, “There’s a lot of foot-dragging on doing the minimum, let alone the maximum, to protect the lakes.”

James Clift, the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said, “The treatment requirements have been working pretty well, but pretty well is not necessarily good enough.

“I’m concerned that we’re increasingly at risk every year that we don’t do more,” said Clift.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

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