House passes ballast treatment billThe U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that would for the first time require all ships entering U.S. waters to treat their ballast water to kill unwanted hitchhikers.
By: By DAN EGAN / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
The free ride might be coming to an end for oceangoing vessels blamed for flooding the Great Lakes with invasive species that have ravaged native fish populations, fouled untold miles of shoreline and spawned botulism outbreaks that have recently killed thousands of Lake Michigan birds.
The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday that would for the first time require all ships entering U.S. waters to treat their ballast water to kill unwanted hitchhikers.
The measure, which must still be approved by the Senate and signed by the president, covers all U.S. ports, but it would be particularly significant for the Great Lakes, which have suffered an onslaught of invasive species since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the once-isolated freshwater seas to global traffic in 1959.
The bill does not cover vessels bound for Canadian ports, though conservationists on both sides of the border said Thursday they hoped Ottawa will eventually adopt parallel legislation.
Ballast water has been targeted because it is the pathway for the most recent arrivals of unwanted species into the world’s largest freshwater system, which is now home to more than 180 non-native species. The problem gets worse every year; a new species is discovered in the lakes, on average, about every six months. Science shows the overwhelming majority of invaders since 1970 have arrived in oceangoing ballast tanks.
Stopping next invaders
The damage alone done by zebra and quagga mussels is estimated to range into the billions of dollars because of the mollusks’ proclivity for clogging industrial and municipal water intake pipes. The filter feeders have also drastically — and likely irreversibly — broken the way energy historically flowed through the lakes, essentially trapping it on the lake bottom, where the fingernail mussels can cluster at densities that exceed 10,000 per square meter.
That has caused an unnatural, Caribbean-like fueled lake bed algae blooms. That vegetation eventually dies, rots and washes ashore and coats beaches with a septic like sludge. The decaying algae also opened the door for botulism outbreaks that spread onto the beaches in western Michigan in the form of massive die-offs for fish-eating birds such as loons.
Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Chisholm Democrat behind Thursday’s ballast bill, has called it a situation that is destroying the Great Lakes. New laws won’t reverse damage that has already been done, but he said they can stop the next invader from further shredding what is left of the lakes’ native ecology.
“We’ve already seen infestations of the sea lamprey, the zebra mussel and the ‘fish-killing virus,’ and we can’t wait for the next infestation before we decide to take action,” Oberstar said Thursday. “This legislation sets tough standards that protect the Great Lakes, and it gives the Coast Guard the authority to enforce them.”
The ballast legislation was tucked into a larger Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, which President Bush has vowed to veto over issues unrelated to the ballast provisions, though the bill passed, 395-7.
The new law would require shippers for the first time to begin installing ballast sterilization systems aboard their vessels starting in 2009 to meet modest organism kill standards. The law would not force ships into dry dock to have the sterilizing equipment installed, but allows for ships to be equipped with the systems — estimated at $500,000 to $1 million per ship — during their regularly scheduled dry dock work. All ships would have to have the systems on board by 2014.
Jennifer Nalbone of the conservation group Great Lakes United called the phase-in requirement “aggressive but reasonable.”
Those initial kill standards would be ramped up by 2012, and by 2015 the goal would be to have zero ballast discharges of anything live — a tall order given how difficult it is to sterilize something as relatively small and simple as a hospital room.
Support of shippers
Shippers support the federal legislation. They have been vehemently opposed to individual states acting on their own, something Wisconsin and Minnesota have been considering, and something Michigan has already done. The worry is a state-by-state set of rules could create a hodgepodge of regulations that might cripple an industry that operates in so many jurisdictions.
“The bill represents what we’ve been looking for . . . federal action that has been lacking for so many years,” said Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association.
Fisher said the shipping industry has long acknowledged the ballast problem, and fixing it is an economic burden it is willing to bear.
“Each shipping company knows their competitor has to do the same thing, so no one is being driven out of business,” he said.
Bruce Baker, deputy administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ water division, said if the measure the House passed Thursday eventually does become federal law, “we’d find it unnecessary to develop state rules.”
“That’s always been our preference, that this be done at the federal level,” he said. “This is good news, and we’re hoping it gets through the Senate.”
Nobody could say Thursday when the Senate might take up the measure, though both of Wisconsin’s senators are eager to see a new law to protect the lakes.
“The Senate should pass strong ballast water legislation and put standards in place to stem the flow of invasive species and protect the health of our lakes,” said Sen. Russ Feingold.
— Copyright © 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / Distributed by McClatchy- Tribune Information Services.