Environmentalists push back on national shipping ballast standards

AP Environmental Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Environmentalists tried to rally opposition Thursday to a proposed national policy for cleansing ship ballast water to kill invasive species, contending it is too weak and would pre-empt stronger state and federal rules.

The U.S. House was expected to vote as early as Friday on the measure, which comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to release its own regulations of ship ballast - a leading culprit in the spread of invaders such as zebra and quagga mussels in the Great Lakes and ocean coastal waters.

Sponsored by Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican, the bill would adopt a standard proposed by the International Maritime Organization limiting the number of live organisms that would be permitted in ballast water. Vessel operators would have to install technology to meet the standard.

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The shipping industry has pushed for a single nationwide policy, saying the current patchwork of more than two dozen state and tribal regulatory systems is unworkable because vessels move constantly from one jurisdiction to another.

Great Lakes shippers are particularly unhappy about New York rules that set live-organism limits 100 times tougher for existing ships than those under the international standard. For newly built ships, New York's standards would be 1,000 times stronger. State officials have postponed the effective date to 2013, giving shippers more time to comply.

The industry says technology to meet the New York requirements doesn't exist. Shippers say the state's strict limits could close the Great Lakes to oceangoing vessels, since they must pass through New York waters to reach the rest of the system.

"While individual state standards and those set by the Clean Water Act function well for factories that are fixed in one location, it simply does not work for vessels engaged in interstate or international commerce," LoBiondo said.

Environmental groups said the bill would prevent EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard, which is also developing ballast rules, from imposing standards tough enough to make sure no more exotic species reach the Great Lakes. About two-thirds of the 185 invasive species in the lakes are believed to have arrived in ballast water. They've done billions in damages and are implicated in a variety of ecological problems, from runaway algae blooms to a shortage of plankton crucial for the aquatic food web.

"This bill is designed to keep the shipping industry off the hook and violates states' right to protect their waters from invasive species," said Marc Smith, senior policy manager for the Naional Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office.

The measure would allow EPA to strengthen the federal standard beginning in 2016, or earlier if a state requests it, according to LoBiondo's office.

But the wildlife group said the bill would make it "difficult, if not impossible, to add new protections, even if the EPA and other agencies determine that the (international) standard is not doing the job."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)