EPA pledges ballast rules to thwart invasive species

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will develop new regulations on ballast water in ships to help thwart the invasion of foreign invasive species.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will develop new regulations on ballast water in ships to help thwart the invasion of foreign invasive species.

The move was announced Tuesday as part of an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit brought by a dozen environmental, conservation and fishing groups that demanded the federal government enact a strong, specific level for sterilization of ballast water before it's discharged.

The agreement was filed Tuesday in federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

"This settlement should prompt EPA to treat 'living pollution' as aggressively as it would an oil spill or toxic release," said Thom Cmar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in announcing the settlement.

The EPA has agreed to publish a draft of the new regulations, called a Vessel General Permit, by November. The rules would become final by late 2012 and would take effect Jan. 1, 2014.


The new federal regulations would override state rules and voluntary international shipping standards.

It remains to be seen how strict the new rules might be -- exactly what the limit for live organisms in ballast will be. Environmental groups said they filed the lawsuit because the EPA's 2008 effort at ballast regulation was too weak and didn't uphold the Clean Water Act.

"This is a do-over for the EPA. And one would hope they do it right this time and enact something that will actually protect our waters," said Jordan Lubetkin, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lake's office. "The proof will be when they actually set standards" for ballast treatment.

Water moved in ship ballast tanks has been blamed for transporting dozens of foreign species into U.S. ocean and Great Lakes ports and then spreading them around - from quagga mussels, ruffe and goby to the fish killing VHS virus. The Twin Ports are considered among the more vulnerable because many ships, including oceangoing freighters, arrive empty or lightly loaded with cargo and must carry ballast water for stability.

The settlement requires EPA to complete scientific reviews of the steps that ships should take to kill or filter living organisms in ballast water in oceangoing ships.

Supporters of the regulations say the three-year timeframe should give ship owners enough time to comply with specific regulations to treat and/or filter ballast by installing devices on their ships.

But shipping interests have said that's may be too soon to develop cost-effective ballast measures. Many say the technology is just emerging to conduct on-board ballast treatment and that the cost to retrofit ships could stifle the industry.

Jim Sharrow, facilities manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said it will be difficult to meet the agreed upon timeline "because the technology is still in development." But Sharrow said he's encouraged about having a single U.S. ballast standard.


"We, along with other industry groups, have been asking for a single federal standard to avoid the patchwork of state regulations that are very confusing if not impossible to meet." Sharrow said, adding that voluntary guidelines for saltwater ships to flush ballast tanks at sea appear to already have stymied the invasion of foreign species into the Great Lakes.

The settlement also requires EPA to encourage states and the U.S. Coast Guard to develop regionally consistent approaches to setting ballast water standards. Currently several states - including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York and California - all have different regulations that require different levels of ballast regulations.

Wisconsin's law requires newly built ships to treat ballast starting next year, with existing ships retrofitted with ballast treatment technology by 2014.

Minnesota enacted its ballast rules in 2008, giving oceangoing ships until 2016 to start treating ballast. Minnesota's law goes further than Wisconsin's, however, by also applying treatment standards to Great Lakes freighters that never enter the ocean but which are blamed for moving species around within the lakes.

The suit was brought by the National Wildlife Federation, Minnesota Conservation Federation, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and 10 other groups.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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