Enviros seek saltie ban

More environmental groups are backing a controversial effort to keep oceangoing ships out of the Great Lakes to control invasive species. The Healing Our Waters Coalition -- comprising 90 local, state and national environmental groups focused on ...

More environmental groups are backing a controversial effort to keep oceangoing ships out of the Great Lakes to control invasive species.

The Healing Our Waters Coalition -- comprising 90 local, state and national environmental groups focused on Great Lakes restoration -- on Wednesday called for an immediate moratorium on salties entering the Great Lakes until technology is installed to ensure the ships' ballast water doesn't hold invasive species.

The coalition's call adds more strength to a demand for a ban on salties made earlier this year by the group Great Lakes United that went mostly ignored.

The coalition says alternatives to salties are readily available in the Great Lakes, including rail, trucks, barges and lake-bound freighters that don't enter the ocean.

"Invasive species are destroying the Great Lakes and Congress is dragging its feet," Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the coalition, said in a teleconference Wednesday. "It's time to fight back ... We have to shut the door now."


However, Douglas County's Development Association director, Andy Lisak, doesn't agree banning salties is a solution.

"By doing that you basically ignore all the other vectors that have been ways of introducing invasive species in the lakes and our Great Lakes," Lisak said. "The impact on our port would be quite significant. The impact would be felt in both Duluth and Superior, and the economic impact would be pretty significant."

Lisak was among a delegation of local officials in Madison on Wednesday meeting with Wisconsin legislators to discuss the need for federal legislation to combat invasive species in the Great Lakes.

Supporters of the ban on salties say the ships make up only a small portion of Great Lakes shipping but account for many of the region's most serious environmental problems.

Removing salties would remove the pathway that most of the Great Lakes invasive species take to enter the lakes from faraway ports, including zebra mussels and viral hemorrhagic septicemia, VHS.

The 185 invasive species now in the Great Lakes cost an estimated $5 billion annually across the lakes, in the U.S. and Canada, including $500 million annually for zebra mussels alone.

Industry officials have asked for patience, saying technology is being developed to remove invasive species from ballast water -- including chemical, physical such as heat, UV light or high pressure, and filter treatments.

The first Great Lakes research project focused on the effectiveness of such technology is expected to get underway soon. The industry-driven research project is being conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Superior at the Elevator O site in Superior.


"They're really trying to push the closure, and from our standpoint that would be detrimental," said Superior's Port and Planning Director Jason Serck. He said the city of Superior alone benefits from about $1 million in occupational taxes from the exports.

While Michigan has adopted legislation to prohibit oceangoing vessels in those ports unless ballast water is treated, Serck said the law is a "paper tiger" because Michigan's ports largely handle imports and ships take on ballast waters, not discharge them.

The Duluth-Superior ports largely handle exports.

Salties are among the most lucrative visitors to many ports, including Duluth-Superior.

Lisa Marciniak, spokeswoman for the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth, said salties made up only 137 of 1,187 ship visits last year, about 12 percent, but account for more than 30 percent of total value moved through the port, especially grain shipments.

Grain elevators, and the jobs they create, would be among the hardest hit, because a significant proportion of their business would dry up without salties, Lisak said.

"It's important to us because it's a high-value cargo," Marciniak said. "It's a lot of added value in jobs and economic impact."

Jim Roach, a transportation consultant and former shipping director for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said a 2005 study he co-wrote showed there would be little effect on the region's economy if salties were banned. The study found that using other forms of transportation would cost about $55 million more annually as freight -- mostly grain going out and steel coming in -- moved to other modes of transportation.


Roach said most of the Twin Ports saltie cargo would move to lakers that would carry grain to the eastern Great Lakes, where it would be move to rail or barges. Other grain would head south by rail, then down the Mississippi River.

Roach said there is ample capacity of those modes of transportation to absorb what salties are now carrying. And the shift could increase employment, he said, with minimal impact on highways or rail lines.

Across the lakes, about 570 salties visit the area each shipping season, carrying 7 percent of the lakes' cargo.

While the coalition concedes that many people would consider a moratorium on salties extreme, Skelding said it is "more extreme to stand by and watch" a small portion of the Great Lakes shipping industry threaten the lakes' ecosystems, the region's drinking water supply, recreational and commercial fishing and the region's economy.

Supporters say the moratorium should be enacted immediately by Congress until a package of laws can be passed that demand ships in the Great Lakes be certified free of invasive species.

"We do agree that there is an issue with invasive species and it needs to be addressed as soon as possible," Serck said. "But we're trying to urge Congress, this year, to enact legislation to require treatment of ships' ballast water ... We think now the stars are aligned with the Democratic control and we think that these folks have a little bit more of a desire to push something through."

Lisak said the maritime community isn't against legislation that would regulate ballast water.

"What the shipping community and maritime community have been lobbying for is federal regulation that would regulate ballast water of any oceangoing ship that visits any Great Lakes or tidewater port," Lisak said. "There needs to be a comprehensive ballast water law at the federal level. I think some of our environmental friends haven't given Congress enough time to put something together and put it out there ... we don't have to destroy an industry to address the invasive species issue."


John Myers is a staff writer at the Duluth News Tribune and Shelley Nelson is a news editor at the Daily Telegram, both Forum Communications publications.

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