Michigan ballast water rules face backlash amid invasive species fight

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
FILE -- The Great Lakes Trader and the tug Joyce L. VanEnkevort -- an integrated tug/barge design --  exits the Poe Lock on it's way downstream at the Soo Locks, Monday, June 1, 2015 in Sault Ste. Marie, MI.

Michigan would drop its own stringent ballast water discharge rules and adopt federal regulations for oceangoing freighters that transport goods in the Great Lakes under legislation approved this week by the Republican-led Legislature.

GOP Gov. Rick Snyder opposed the bill in an earlier form amid concerns over the risk for invasive aquatic species, and sponsors are not sure where he stands on the proposal as modified late Tuesday night during a marathon session.

Prominent environmental groups are calling on the governor to veto the bill. They cite a “loophole” in new language meant to calm fears by ensuring ships have an approved ballast water treatment system on board if they want to discharge in Michigan waters.

Environmentalists argue it would weaken state protections meant to combat zebra mussels, sea lamprey, Asian carp and other invasive species.

Supporters contend the measure could open underutilized ports in Detroit and coastal areas to ocean-going freighters that now avoid Michigan for other Great Lakes states. Doing so would benefit export industries such as agriculture that currently truck goods out of the state before getting them on a boat.

“Any agriculture product we ship overseas has to be trucked to Maumee (Ohio), where they have a big port,” said Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, who introduced the new language Tuesday night. “It’s handed off, put into silos there and then dumped in to ocean freighters. That’s a minimum of 50 cents a bushel it’s costing our farmers.”

Ships store water in ballast tanks to accommodate weight changes as they load or unload cargo. Discharged water from other bodies has been blamed for numerous invasive fish and plant species that have been found in the Great Lakes.

Michigan created its own ballast water standards in 2005 during the Granholm administration, toughening federal rules that supporters called inadequate. The law directed the Department of Environmental Quality to create a permit program for oceangoing vessels porting in Michigan.

The state currently permits oceangoing ships that have a water treatment system on board and allows four options, including sodium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide, ultraviolet light and deoxygenation.

The DEQ warned the earlier version of the bill would still allow “residual biota” to linger in ballast water tanks, jeopardizing efforts to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes. Lawmakers say they worked with the DEQ to tighten the language.

But the revised legislation still “guts our ballast water standards and drops them even below the Coast Guard standards by allowing the use of alternative management systems,” said James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council.

Oceangoing freighters porting in Michigan could use treatment systems “licensed by countries across the globe under shoddy approval processes,” he said. “The problem is the federal standards have this large loophole for existing ships that have not been retrofitted yet with Coast Guard-approved technology.”

Sponsoring Rep. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, said the modified legislation ensures that freighters porting in Michigan will have to use on-board ballast water treatment systems in addition to federally required deep sea flushes designed to rid tanks of invasives.

“We’ve tightened that language up so it’s very clear that if you’re depending on a fresh water or salt water (flush), that is not a ballast water treatment system,” he said.

Lauwers, a farmer who owns and operates Eastern Michigan Grain in St. Clair County, said he used to send corn across the Blue Water Water Bridge so it could be shipped out of Canada, where ballast water discharge rules are “not as restrictive as ours.”

“We’re also really going to change shipping in Detroit,” he said. “Detroit brings in steel but they don’t export because of our laws… Now, we can have ships come in loaded and leave Michigan loaded. It’s really going to put us back in business.”

The potential change in Michigan ballast water rules comes as congress also considers changes to federal regulations.

A measure opposed by the U.S. Senate earlier this year would have transferred the authority over ballast water and other vessel discharges from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Coast Guard and pre-empted the ability of states to adopt their own regulations governing ballast discharge.

“Michigan is the center of the Great Lakes and should really be a leader in protections,” said Nick Occhipinti, government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. His group and the Michigan Environmental Council are both calling on Snyder to veto the measure.

“The governor has been great on this issue so far and we hope and will continue to ask him to hold the line,” Occhipinti said.

Snyder has not yet weighed in publicly, and supporters and opponents are both awaiting his decision on the ballast water bill. 

“Due to the complexity of this issue, given state standards and federal standards, the administration continues to review the legislation as ordered enrolled to ensure that there are no inadvertent impacts to Great Lakes waters,” said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Green said the governor told lawmakers he would veto an earlier draft but hasn’t done the same for this version.

“We still don’t have a guarantee, but we just felt we needed to get this process straightened out,” he said.

A veto would be a “real shame,” Lauwers said.

“Michigan agriculture has kind of carried our economy in many instances for the last several years and continues to expand at a high rate,” he said. “It was the governor’s goal to get us over $100 billion in exports. We’ve exceeded that. If we get exporting on ships, we’re going to greatly exceed that.”