DEC Pushes for Ballast Rules for Oceangoing Ships

Wednesday, August 08, 2007
With a new invasive species discovered almost every six months in the Great Lakes, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Pete Grannis is calling on federal officials to close a loophole that has fueled the problem. An exemption to the federal Clean Water Act effectively allows ocean-going ships to dump ballast water in American’s inland waters, bringing aquatic invaders from zebra mussels to lampreys to the ruffe to the round goby. This has rapidly harmed the ecology of U.S. waters, especially the Great Lakes. Grannis encouraged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take action to force ships to clean out their ballast tanks before entering the nation’s waterways.

Ballast water discharge is considered a likely suspect in the emergence of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), a fatal fish disease that has been found in three Great Lakes (Ontario, Erie and Huron) and, this summer, in several smaller New York lakes and ponds. The round goby, a small Eurasian fish, has been implicated in the deaths of a large number of birds, including loon and other waterfowl. Goby are believed to eat mussels that have taken in botulism in sediment; the fish are subsequently eaten by birds that die from botulism toxin.

Historically, oceangoing ships have been exempted from requirements of the Clean Water Act, which require permits for discharges into water bodies. Instead, current regulations allow ships to simply pledge that they have flushed ballast water (used to balance cargo) before entering inland waters. Yet studies show that large ships carry and discharge billions of gallons of ballast in the Great Lakes each year. Ballast water discharges from oceangoing vessels are the main source of invasive species to U.S. waters. New studies show invasive species discovered in the Great Lakes at a rate of one every 28 weeks – 185 invaders, so far, and counting. Last year, a federal court said the exemption for ships should be halted, ruling in favor of New York and other states that had filed a multi-state lawsuit. In its decision, the U.S. District Court for Northern California said ``there is no dispute’’ that invasive species have entered the U.S. marine ecosystem through ballast discharges. The court ordered the exemption ended by Sept. 30, 2008. EPA has appealed. But in the meantime, it has asked for comments for a potential new regulation regarding discharges. Monday (Aug. 6, 2007) was the deadline for comments.

Several states have begun developing ballast regulations. But Grannis said the ideal approach would be for EPA to write uniform ballast regulations for all the states. Among the recommendations, Grannis said the EPA should require mandatory flushing of ballast water prior to entering inland waters. Moreover, national guidelines would alleviate a concern by commercial fishermen and other small craft owners that the lawsuit potentially forces them to follow the same mandates as oceangoing ships. DEC developed the response for New York in consultation with the state Attorney General’s office.

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