Out to force ships to treat ballast water

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2008 - 1:05 AM

Fearful of a deadly fish disease and other invasive pests, Minnesota lawmakers and state pollution officials are trying to force ships to stop dumping untreated ballast water in Lake Superior. Although a bill in the Legislature has come under heavy opposition, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is moving forward with its plans to begin to regulate shipowners.

The shipping industry has opposed a state-by-state approach to the problem, saying that national and international rulemaking is already making progress.

The state bill and MPCA regulation are trying to keep dozens of invasive species -- including spores, plants, eggs, small fish and other aquatic life -- from entering the Great Lakes and proliferating. The invaders, mainly from ports in northern Europe and the Black and Caspian Seas, become stowaways in huge ballast tanks when freighters discharge millions of gallons of water as they load cargoes. Many species do not survive, but others have infested new areas and have spread to more ports and inland lakes.

Mary Jean Fenske, MPCA vessel discharge program coordinator, said that more than 5 billion gallons of water from other places was dumped into Duluth-Superior Harbor in 2005, making it the top location in the Great Lakes for ballast water discharge. Among other foreign species already established at Duluth from past discharges are zebra and quagga mussels, and two types of fish: round gobies and Eurasian ruffe.

Fenske told the MPCA Citizens' Board Tuesday that invasive species compete with native species for food and habitat, disrupt ecosystems and cost cities and industries millions of dollars.

To prevent future invasions, she said that Minnesota is moving toward establishing a permit system by late September that will eventually require shipowners to treat ballast water to kill or to remove foreign bacteria and other organisms before the water is dumped.

Jim Sharrow, facilities manager at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said that regulation by individual states could hurt the shipping industry and farming, mining and other sectors that depend upon shipping for reasonably priced transportation.

"We'd hope that eventually ballast water is controlled solely by a federal agency," said Sharrow, "because otherwise the ships would be forced to try to live within a patchwork of laws from state to state."

The industry has been making the same argument for many years, and new invasive species continue to become established in the Great Lakes, said MPCA Commissioner Brad Moore. "This is something that's been going on for decades," he said.

Moore said that the MPCA will continue to track federal efforts to control ballast water dumping, but that it will also develop a state permit system in case the national plans continue to languish or do not go far enough. The Environmental Protection Agency ruled in 1973 that ships were exempt from discharge permits under the Clean Water Act, and continues to hold that position despite court opinions to the contrary. The matter is under appeal.

The U.S. Coast Guard has not developed a ballast water standard, and has moved slowly on rules for treating ballast water. Congress is also considering tougher laws, but so far with little progress.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, proposed a state law that would set up the framework for the state to regulate ballast water from ships that discharge into Minnesota waters. The proposal has been lambasted by shipping interests.

The Shipping Federation of Canada testified earlier this month that the Minnesota bill would "result in disruptions to maritime traffic and potential modal shifts towards rail or road transportation," which would increase air pollution and affect public health. The federation represents 85 Canadian firms that own, operate or are agents for overseas shipping.

Hansen disagrees with industry claims that his proposal or the MPCA permit system will shut down shipping. Although some of the methods for onboard filtering, killing or removing harmful organisms may not be fully developed, Hansen said, it's time to push the technology forward. Also driving the urgency, he said, is the potential spread of contagious fish diseases, such as viral hemorrhagic septicemia, which is already found in fish living in all of the Great Lakes except Superior.

Other Great Lakes states considering regulations or new laws to require ballast water treatment include Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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