Environmentalists: Proposal Could Add Invasive Species to Great Lakes

The Great Lakes have been fighting against invasive species since the early 1800s. Great progress has been made, but environmentalists fear proposed legislation could derail those hard-won gains. It has to do with ballast water. That's the water carried in a tank on a ship to improve stability and balance.

Elizabeth Brackett reports.

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Elizabeth Brackett: Lake Michigan’s water sparkles on a beautiful summer day. But one reason the water appears so clear is due to invasive species that filter out the nutrients that are essential to the lake’s food chain.

Philip Willink, Shedd Aquarium: Invasive species are one of the greatest environmental threats to the Great Lakes. Over 180 have entered the Great Lakes and they fundamentally change many of the aquatic ecosystems.

Brackett: These invasive species were brought to the Great Lakes in the ballast water from international shippers. The threat from invasive species is so high, the Shedd Aquarium doesn’t use actual specimens in its exhibit.

Willink: Those are round gobies. So those came in through ballast water. Off to the side here we have models of zebra mussels. And the reason that these are models is that if bring live zebra mussels into the aquarium, they will release their eggs, they could get into our pipes and they could start reproducing, clog the pipes and actually devastate the entire aquarium.

Brackett: Now environmentalists say proposed legislation could allow more invasive species to enter the Great Lakes.

Rebecca Riley, Natural Resources Defense Council: Congress snuck a provision into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that would exempt ballast water from regulation under the Clean Water Act.

Brackett: Ocean-going ships that bring their cargo into Great Lakes ports, like the Federal Biscay, unloading foreign steel at the port of Indiana’s Burns Harbor, are regulated by both the U.S. Coast Guard and the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act.

In 2006, the Coast Guard began requiring those ships to dump the ballast water they picked up in foreign ports and pick up sea water.

That ballast water exchange must be made at least 200 nautical miles from land, in water that is 2,000 meters deep to prevent invasive species from being brought in with the new ballast water.

Shippers say those Coast Guard regulations have kept invasive species out of the Great Lakes.

James Weakley, Lake Carriers’ Association: The door was closed in 2006 when the Coast Guard stopped allowing vessels from the ocean to come in with ballast water that wasn’t managed. Not coincidentally, in 2007 the last invasive species was discovered, the bloody red shrimp, in the Great Lakes.

Brackett: Riley is skeptical.

Riley: We don't really know that because we don’t have any comprehensive monitoring going on and the threat is still there because we know that the water being discharged still has live species in it. Salt water flushing which is what the ships use now is a good method but we know that there are live species even after they do salt water flushing. So as long as you have live species in ballast water you have a risk of more invasions.

Brackett: To combat that risk, ocean-going vessels that sail the Great Lakes, called Salties, have worked on developing ballast water treatment systems. The Federal Biscay is the first ship on the Great Lakes to bring a ballast water treatment system online. Located in the bowels of the ship over the ballast water tanks, these pumps will push out the old ballast water and bring in the ocean water when the ship is at sea.

The sea water will then be injected with chlorine to kill any living organisms in the ballast water. When the ship gets into port on the Great Lakes, the ballast water will be injected with sodium sulfate to neutralize any remaining chlorine. The Coast Guard has not approved any ballast water management system, including the Federal Biscay’s.

Riley: The systems that are available now aren't good enough to get us to that zero standard. They aren't good enough to make sure everything living in that ballast water is killed.

Brackett: Ships, like the 678-foot Wilfred Sykes, that never sail beyond the Great Lakes, are called Lakers.

Brackett via Skype to Weakley: The Lakers have always been a bit concerned that they've gotten blamed for bringing in these invasive species, when you say primarily it's been the Salties.

Weakley: Actually it's exclusively been the Salties. We never leave the Great Lakes. Our ships are physically too big to get beyond the Welland Canal so we've been in the forefront of calling attention to the problem.

Brackett: Both the Salties and the Lakers agree that the proposed legislation called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, which would exempt ballast water from the Clean Water Act and put the Coast Guard in charge, is needed.

Weakley: Currently we have a patchwork quilt of regulations, more than two dozen states have requirements on top of the two federal agencies, and what we're looking to do is have a piece of legislation that has a single national standard with a single federal agency in charge.

Brackett: Right now Weakley says Lakers and Salties face different and conflicting regulations, where treatment of ballast water in one Great Lakes state may clash with the rules in another.

Weakley compares it to asking the airlines to change their equipment as they fly from one state to another. But Riley says the Great Lakes will be at risk of more invasive species if the act passes and ballast water is exempted from the Clean Water Act.

Rebecca RileyRebecca Riley

Riley: The question is what technology do we use to make sure our water is the cleanest? And that’s just not the expertise of the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard, as you said, regulates boats. The EPA is the agency with that scientific expertise on keeping our water clean.

Brackett: The U.S. Senate has dropped the provision that exempts ballast water from the Clean Water Act but it remains in the U.S. House version.

More on this story

The entire National Defense Authorization Act which contains the provision exempting ballast water from the Clean Water Act heads toward a conference committee to resolve the differences between the Senate and House versions. Since this is must-pass legislation, a vote will be taken before the current Congress ends.

After reading the transcript of this story, James Weakley of the Lake Carriers’ Association emailed a response to offer "a few follow-up comments for clarification," including the Coast Guard's role in writing and enforcing environmental regulations. You can read his comments here. We also shared Weakley's comments with Rebecca Riley of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is also featured in this story, to give her a chance to weigh in. You can read her follow-up comments here.

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