Senators oppose measure removing EPA power over ballast

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Conservation groups say a measure under consideration in the U.S. Senate this week could have a far-reaching ecological effect in the Great Lakes by changing the regulation of ballast water discharged by large ships.

A measure included in the U.S. Coast Guard Reauthorization Act would transfer the authority over ballast water and other vessel discharges from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Coast Guard and pre-empt the ability of states to adopt their own regulations governing ballast discharge.

The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act is backed by industry groups including the American Waterways Operators and the Lake Carriers Association, which seek a national standard over an “unworkable patchwork” of requirements enforced by two dozen states and two federal agencies.

But environmental groups and some policymakers argue the provision would weaken protections against invasive species such as the zebra and quagga mussels, which entered the Great Lakes via ballast water.

A procedural vote to advance the bill is expected as early as Wednesday. Democratic Michigan U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township say they support the underlying Coast Guard legislation but won’t vote for it unless the ballast water provision is removed.

“I am deeply opposed to attaching a bill to that critical legislation that would undermine our ability to fight invasive species under the Clean Water Act and take away our rights of our states to be able to protect our waters,” Stabenow said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

“The Coast Guard is not responsible for the protections. They do fantastic work, but it’s not their job in terms of water quality. That’s the EPA, and it removes their authority.”

Due to concern over the ballast water measure, Peters withheld his support when the Coast Guard legislation was before the Senate Commerce committee last year, even though it included his amendment to create a research center in the Great Lakes to study the impacts of oil spills in fresh water.

“Language inserted into what was otherwise a bill with broad bipartisan support fails to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species — which have caused significant economic and environmental damage to Michigan’s unique ecosystem,” Peters said in a Tuesday statement.

The attorneys general of 10 states including Michigan’s Bill Schuette have also objected to the measure, saying it removes the power delegated to them by EPA under the Clean Water Act to take actions necessary to protect state water resources.

“Because states directly bear the immense consequences of an invasive species outbreak, it is critical that their authority to regulate ballast water discharges be preserved in order to prevent such invasions of their vital waterways,” the attorneys general wrote to lawmakers last year.

Vessels often take in or discharge water from ballast tanks for stability while loading or off-loading cargo, but that water may include pollutants or species that get discharged along with the ballast water at the next port of call.

The shipping industry has maintained that the Coast Guard is better suited to regulating ballast water because it already enforces discharge permit violations and certifies on-board pollution treatment systems.

They say a single standard would reduce costs and confusion vessel owners and operators – some of whom have delayed investing in expensive ballast-treatment technology, worried that their systems won’t meet the standards in various states.

Conservation groups say that invasive species transported to the Great Lakes have already caused “irreparable harm” to the ecosystem, costing states and the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars a year.