Lansing — The Republican-controlled Legislature finished voting Thursday to weaken a law that keeps oceangoing cargo ships from releasing untreated ballast water in Michigan waters, despite a possible veto from Gov. Rick Snyder.
The bill, which won approval on a mostly party-line 25-11 vote in the Senate, cleared the House last week. It would revise a 2005 law requiring saltwater vessels to use state-approved cleansing technology before discharging ballast water, which provides stability in rough seas. Scientists believe dozens of the invasive species that have reached the Great Lakes in recent decades arrived in ballast water.
Under the legislation, the state would have to use federal aquatic species nuisance standards when issuing a port permit to an oceangoing vessel.
Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Quality, which opposes the bill along with the Republican governor, said it could lead to ships using a method by which “residual biota can still remain in tanks” — leading to inadequate protections for the Great Lakes.
Twenty-three Republicans and two Democrats voted for the bill Thursday. Eight Democrats and three Republicans opposed it.
“I don’t think we should be standing alone. I think we should have this bill passed and we should let our ports be competitive once again,” said Sen. Dave Robertson, a Grand Blanc Republican. He accused the measure’s opponents of “cavalierly” accepting that it is OK for Michigan to be at a “competitive disadvantage.”
But Sen. Rebekah Warren, an Ann Arbor Democrat, noted that the current law was enacted with nearly unanimous bipartisan support several years ago. She said Michigan’s policy, while distinct, is very similar to conditions that have been imposed in 13 other states.
“Evidence has shown that these stronger standards have been effective in slowing, although not preventing, the spread of invasive species,” she said. It is a “particularly inappropriate time” to relax Michigan’s standards, she said, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is revising its rules.
“We are joint stewards of 20 percent of this entire earth’s fresh surface water. It is not cavalier to protect that important natural resource,” Warren said.
Under existing regulations, oceangoing vessels can get a permit to discharge ballast in Michigan waters by using any of several approved ballast treatment systems. Ships without such systems can pick up or unload freight at Michigan ports but cannot release their ballast water.
The Coast Guard has instructed ships to phase in treatment systems. But in the meantime, the bill would allow them to dump untreated ballast water in Michigan, according to critics.
Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said he needs to review the bill. While identical versions of the legislation have been passed by both chambers, the House must still formally enroll the bill before it goes to Snyder.
Legislators adjourned Thursday for a two-week break for hunting and the Thanksgiving holiday.
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