The Duluth harbor is home to a growing number of invasive species from spiny water fleas, to zebra mussels and round gobies.
The plants and animals can establish quickly and push out native and arguably more desirable organisms. And it is almost certain these creatures arrived from far flung places like the Caspian Sea, hidden in ship ballast water.
There has been a lot of discussion what to do about ballast water, but little action. Now, a court ruling from California is spurring new actions.
The court said federal pollution law requires officials to regulate ships which dump ballast in U.S. waters. And the ruling gives regulators until this October to do it.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is leading the effort in Minnesota. The MPCA's Jeff Stollenwerk said the court's ruling could apply to any kind of water vessel -- even recreational boats.
"Our initial focus has been on ballast water discharges from commercial vessels in the Great Lakes, since they are a suspected source of invasive species introductions, so we felt it was a high priority area," Stollenwerk said. "That's really what the court decision focussed on, and that's where we're concentrating our efforts right now."
Minnesota may be the second Great Lakes state with state-specific rules. Michigan was first, requiring permits for ships that come into Michigan waters from the ocean. Wisconsin is considering a similar program, and Ontario Province has its own rules and permits.
But even as he works to develop regulations, Stollenwerk says a state-by-state approach is not the best way to do this. Many people involved in Great Lakes shipping agree. The Director of Duluth Seaway Port Authority, Adolf Ojard, said the people who run the ships understand regulations are necessary.
"The industry as a whole, though, is looking more for a federal solution. We're looking for uniformity," Ojard said. "A hodge-podge of individual states and individual ports all requiring separate and unique permits and applications of treatment, really doesn't work in this environment. Ships move throughout the world and throughout the country, and so we're pressing for a federal legislation and uniformity from the federal government."
There is also some dispute about which vessels need regulations. Michigan's permits, for example, apply only to ocean going ships. But Minnesota's would put new ballast water rules on both the ocean going salties, and the lakers - the ships that sail only on the five Great Lakes. All the more reason, Ojard said, that regulating should fall to the federal government.
"This whole process is fraught with problems -- complications. It needs to be moved very thoughtfully," he said. "There needs to be a consideration for, I guess, people, and recreation, and goods and services. It has to be a practical approach."
The California court ruling has prompted action at both state and federal levels. Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar wrote authority for a federal ballast program into a Water Resources Development Bill that recently became law, over the President's veto. But the progam doesn't have funding yet. The money is in another bill which Congress has yet to pass. Still, Oberstar says the federal government is finally moving on regulations, largely because of the state's actions.
"I think the state government initiatives, while ultimately likely to be ruled out of order by a court, because of the over arching federal authority, none the less prod federal government agencies into action," he said.
Oberstar expects a federal permitting and ballast regulation program to be in effect by the October 1st deadline. But in the meantime, Minnesota will continue drawing up its own program.
The MPCA's Jeff Stollenwerk says it's too early to predict what might be in new regulations, but that public input hearings will likely be held in early March.