Senate drops measure to exempt ship ballasts from Clean Water Act
Apr 18, 2018 10:42AM ● Published by Editor
By Dan Eagan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - April 19, 2018
The U.S. Senate voted narrowly Wednesday against a measure that would have pulled some significant Clean Water Act protections for the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters.
The measure, which would have removed the Environmental Protection Agency from managing contaminated ballast water discharges from freighters and turned it over to the U.S. Coast Guard, was fiercely opposed by Great Lakes conservation and environmental groups.
Those groups viewed it as a giant step backward in compelling the shipping industry to better disinfect its ship-steadying ballast water, which can be contaminated with unwanted species from around the globe.
Contaminated ballast water is how some of the Great Lakes’ most notorious invaders are believed to have arrived in the world’s largest freshwater system, including zebra and quagga mussels, spiny waterfleas, round gobies and the fish-killing VHS virus.
Shipping industry advocates have been pushing for the change for years, arguing that the existing ballast water management program is too complicated because it is handled by both the Coast Guard and EPA. Many states also have their own ballast regulations.
The idea was to streamline and standardize treatment requirements for an industry that, by its nature, must operate in multiple jurisdictions.
The problem, according to the conservation groups, is that the Coast Guard is ill-suited to manage this form of biological pollution and cannot compel the shipping industry to limit its discharges under the authority of the Clean Water Act, which is administered by the EPA.
“Today’s vote by the Senate brought a sigh of relief for the Great Lakes region,” Jennifer Caddick, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said in a news release. “This means Clean Water Act protections will continue to apply to ballast water discharges, which are the main pathway for aquatic invasive species introductions into the Great Lakes.”
In a separate statement, a coalition of environmental groups called it “a huge victory for the millions of people, communities, and businesses who want to put an end to the environmental and economic harm wrought by aquatic invasive species."
The measure, called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA, was attached to the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2017. For the Coast Guard Authorization Act to go forward for a final vote, it needed the approval of 60 senators in Wednesday’s procedural vote. The vote was 56 yes and 42 no.
U.S. Sen.Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) voted in favor of blocking the pollution control rollbacks.
“The Coast Guard legislation on the floor today included a dangerous ballast water provision that would allow for the spread of invasive species in our Great Lakes, hurting local communities and our coastal economy,” Baldwin said in a statement. “I cannot support legislation that harms our nation’s Great Lakes, so I led my colleagues to stand against this legislation. Now that it’s clear this bill will not pass, we should remove the ballast water provision and pass a bill that supports our Coast Guard, protects our Great Lakes and helps our coastal economy.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson voted the opposite way, having — through an aide — described the issue "as an interstate commerce issue where a federal standard is more appropriate than the current regulatory patchwork based on state land borders."
Reached Wednesday after the vote, an aide repeated the statement.
An avenue for invasives
Since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the Great Lakes to deep-draft overseas ships in 1959, contaminated ballast water has been blamed for dozens of invaders that have decimated native fish populations, helped trigger toxic algae outbreaks and have been implicated in tens of thousands of bird deaths from botulism.
Studies have shown that pipe-clogging invasive mussels alone have done billions of dollars in damage, both to the environment and to the budgets of city drinking water systems, as well as to the bottom lines of businesses that depend on a steady supply of water from pipelines stretching into the lakes.
All ships sailing on the Great Lakes have the potential to move unwanted species, but ecologists say the biggest trouble is caused by the overseas ships because they are the class of ships that bring in new species from around the globe.
Nobody disputes that Great Lakes shipping is big business, but most of the cargo moves from one Great Lakes port to another. The portion of cargo carried by overseas ships carrying up the seaway in recent years has been 5% of the overall tonnage moved on the lakes.
One study done in 2007 estimated that economic savings tied to allowing those ships into the Great Lakes is about $55 million annually. The average annual cargo loads carried by those seaway vessels has since plummeted to the point that today it could be carried by a single inbound and outbound train from the East Coast.
More on the Great Lakes
For stories about the threat of invasive species to the Great Lakes, and other perils, go to jsonline.com/greatlakes
Dan Egan is the Brico Fund Senior Water Policy Fellow in Great Lakes Journalism at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. In this role, he will report on pressing issues facing the Great Lakes. Editorial content is controlled by Egan and Journal Sentinel editors.