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Coast Guard issues ballast water rules

by Candice Miller on March 22, 2012

Stricter regulations targeting invasive species


Times Herald|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE

Nearly 30 years after invasive zebra mussels first showed up in Lake St. Clair, new regulations that will take effect at the end of June will require ocean-going vessels to treat their ballast water before entering the Great Lakes.

Frank Schoonover, 81, of Harsens Island, said he believes the new ballast water standards will be a good thing.

A lifelong angler, Schoonover said he has watched invasive species damage local waterways, and witnessed the death of the commercial fishing industry in Lake Huron. Conditions on Lake St. Clair, however, have improved since the days when he was a kid, when Schoonover said he remembers his fishing boat floating amid raw, untreated sewage.

Ocean-going ships will be required by the U.S. Coast Guard to zap their ballast water with ultraviolet light, chemicals or other treatments before dumping it into U.S. waters. The regulations are intended to prevent further species invasions that damage the environment.

Ships use ballast water to maintain stability in rough seas, but the ballast often harbors organisms from abroad. When the soupy mixtures of water and sediment are discharged in U.S. ports, the newcomers can spread rapidly, starve out native competitors and spread diseases.

Zebra and quagga mussels that hitched a ride to the Great Lakes from Europe in the 1980s have clogged water intake pipes, requiring expensive repairs, and are blamed for a Lake Huron salmon collapse and botulism that killed thousands of shore birds.

“Once fully implemented, this ballast water discharge standard will significantly reduce the risk of an introduction of aquatic nuisance species into the Great Lakes,” said Rear Adm. Michael Parks, commander of the Coast Guard’s Cleveland district.

Kay Cumbow, spokeswoman for the Blue Water chapter of the Sierra Club, said the new standard was a step in the right direction.

“It’s a tremendous victory for the Great Lakes, and a tremendous victory for all the groups and individuals that have worked for this,” Cumbow said.

A report released in October and funded by the shipping industry stated about 61 million tons of freight moved through Michigan ports in 2010 — 88% of which was on U.S. flag vessels. The report also found found ocean ships — known as “salties” — contribute much less to the regional economy than the fleet of U.S. and Canadian ships lake freighters.

Joel Anderson of Anderson Pro Bait in Port Huron said the “salties” were the root of all the problems in the Great Lakes.

Annual costs from damage invasive species has wreaked on the Great Lakes Basin reportedly cost about $200 million.

The tug-of-war over the Great Lakes between lobbyists for the fishing and shipping industries stymied the progress of enacting the new standard, Anderson said.

“I think they’ll have their hands full trying to enforce them,” Anderson said.

Though the Great Lakes have stabilized since the introduction of zebra mussels — and local waterways are clearer — Anderson speculated more algae blooms could sprout in the future.

“Zebra mussels have eaten everything there is to eat,” Anderson said, explaining clearer water allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into lakes and rivers, stimulating algae growth.

Ships that travel the Great Lakes exclusively are exempt from the new regulations. Currently “salties” must discharge their ballast tanks before entering the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

But the Coast Guard acknowledged some organisms could survive in puddles of water and mud. For the first time, the new policy requires onboard treatment of ballast water to kill as many fish, mussels and even tiny microbes as possible.

Glen Nekvasil, a spokesman with the Lake Carriers’ Association in Cleveland, said the technology does not currently exist to treat the volume and flow rate of ballast water in cargo ships that travel the Great Lakes exclusively.

Lakers typically have about 16.5 million gallons of ballast water on board, which is pumped at rates as high as 80,000 gallons per minute, Nekvasil said.

Nekvasil contends cargo ships that never leave the lakes did not introduce a non-indigenous species to the area.

“Our vessels could spread organisms introduced by an ocean-going vessel,” Nekvasil said. “It’s questionable if treating our ballast would possibly slow the spread of invasive species.”

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Twp., issued a statement Monday in support of the tougher ballast water standards, noting further research and improved technology will lend itself in the future to tighter regulations.

“There has been some talk about whether these standards are tough enough,” Miller said Wednesday in an interview with the Times Herald. “Michigan has been a leader on this issue.”

The state of New York was considering passing its own ballast water regulations about 100 times stricter than those just passed by the Coast Guard, Miller said, but backed off.

If Michigan was to pass regulations tighter than the Coast Guard standard, Miller said many ocean-going freighters could choose to avoid Michigan ports so they wouldn’t have to comply.

“Uniformity is key,” Miller said.

The rule limits numbers of living organisms in particular volumes of water. Ships would have to install equipment to meet standards developed by the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations. Environmental groups contend the limits should be 100 or even 1,000 times tougher, but industry groups say no existing technology can do that.

The Coast Guard said it made the change after an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study questioned the reliability of more stringent standards. EPA has proposed a separate ship discharge policy based on the international limits.

In a written statement, the Coast Guard said it “fully intends to issue a later rule that will establish a more stringent phase-two discharge standard.”

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