U.S. Senate passes compromise on ballast water discharges

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted 94-6 to approve Coast Guard legislation that includes a bipartisan compromise on ballast water discharges.

The U.S. Senate this week is considering a bipartisan compromise regarding the regulation of ballast water discharged by large ships.

The deal preserves the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to set treatment standards for ballast water and other vessel discharges under the Clean Water Act, while assigning the Coast Guard the lead in monitoring and enforcing the standards. 

The legislation also allows Great Lakes states to establish more stringent standards for ballast-water discharges for vessels traveling the five lakes.

The amended bill next returns to the U.S. House for consideration.

It includes a measure from U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, to create a research center in the Great Lakes to study the impact of oil spills in fresh water. 

Existing technologies for responding to oil spills are designed for salt-water environments.

“I was alarmed to hear from the Coast Guard that they are not able to adequately respond to an oil spill in the Great Lakes, putting at risk our economy, our environment and our drinking water,” said Peters, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“The Great Lakes Center of Expertise would leverage the good work already happening in Michigan to further advance research, development and testing of freshwater oil spill response equipment and protect the Great Lakes for generations to come.”

Ballast water regulation

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 pushed for a single standard to reduce costs and confusion vessel owners and operators, rather than a patchwork of regulations that vary state to state.

Conservation groups and Democrats including Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Lansing had objected to an earlier version in April that they argued weakened protections against invasive species such as Asian carp.

Stabenow, co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, applauded Wednesday's passage after helping to negotiate the language with the leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.  

"This is yet another example of what we can accomplish when we work across the aisle to protect our Great Lakes," Stabenow said. 

Her office said the language authorizes $50 million a year for a new program under the EPA for monitoring and responding to outbreaks of invasive species in the Great Lakes and to help develop new ballast-control technologies for vessels in the lakes.

“This agreement to have the Coast Guard enforce standards established through an EPA-led process will create needed clarity for vessel operators while remaining sensitive to local concerns about invasive species,” South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, chairman of the environment committee, said in a statement. 

Stabenow and Peters had also opposed a provision that would have preempted the ability of states to adopt their own regulations governing ballast discharge.

Michigan in 2005 established its own ballast water standards, which are tougher than the federal rules. 

Under the Senate bill, state standards would remain in place until the EPA comes up with its new, final rules within two years. 

The senators said the legislation also provides states with opportunities to participate in the standard-setting process and to participate in enforcement, including judicial review.

The Lake Carriers’ Association, which represents U.S.-flag vessel operators on the Great Lakes, praised the Senate vote in a statement that described the legislation as a "good balance, achieving protection of both the economy and the environment."