EPA proposes stricter rules for ship ballast water | TahoeDailyTribune.com

EPA proposes stricter rules for ship ballast water

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) – The Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter requirements Wednesday for cleaning ballast water that keeps ships upright in rolling seas but enables invasive species to reach U.S. waters, where they have ravaged ecosystems and caused billions of dollars in economic losses.

The new standards would require commercial vessels to install technology strong enough to kill at least some of the fish, mussels and even microorganisms such as viruses that lurk in ballast water before it’s dumped into harbors after ships arrive in port. Environmentalists whose lawsuits forced the EPA to implement rules in the first place said the new proposal is largely inadequate.

More than 180 exotic species have invaded the Great Lakes, about two-thirds of which are believed to have been carried in ballast water. Among them are zebra and quagga mussels, which have spread across most of the lakes and turned up as far away as California. Ballast water also has brought invaders to ocean coasts, including Asian clams in San Francisco Bay and Japanese shore crabs on the Atlantic seaboard.

Ballast water regulation has been debated in Congress for years but no legislation has passed because of disagreements over how strict the cleanliness standards should be.

The EPA refused for years to set rules for ballast water under the Clean Water Act, but the agency was ordered to do so by federal courts after environmental groups sued. The agency issued an industry-wide permit in 2008 requiring shippers to exchange their millions of gallons of ballast water at sea or, if the tanks were empty, rinse them with salt water before entering U.S. territory. Environmentalists sued again, saying the requirement was too weak.

The EPA’s new draft permit lays out live-organism limits similar to those recommended by the International Maritime Organization in 2004, which shipping industry groups have said are achievable. The agency said its standard “is expected to substantially reduce the risk of introduction and establishment” of invasive species.

But environmental groups and some states contend those standards aren’t strong enough. By making those standards the basis of the proposed federal policy, “EPA is shrinking from its duty to make sure U.S. waters are fully protected,” said Thom Cmar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This draft permit is a half-step forward. EPA had an opportunity to solve this problem once and for all but this proposal doesn’t do that.”

Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, said the federal plan was reasonable and noted it would expire after four years, allowing further refinement.

“We believe this represents a doable solution,” Fisher said. “We also believe that once we start installing the first generation of this equipment, it will lead to second and third generations. EPA will have the opportunity to ratchet up the requirements as technology becomes available.”

All sides agree a single federal standard would be preferable to an existing patchwork of federal and state policies, which the industry says is confusing and unworkable. The EPA doesn’t have the authority to pre-empt state rules, but Fisher said the industry hopes many states will go with the EPA policy or a similar one under development by the Coast Guard.

In New York, rules scheduled to take effect in 2013 would require limits 100 times stronger than the international ones, while California is phasing in standards 1,000 times tougher. Shippers and officials in those states disagree over whether existing technology could meet those demands.

The industry contends that if New York proceeds with its rule, it would slam the door on the Great Lakes’ international shipping because vessels from overseas must go through New York waters to reach the lakes.

The EPA’s rule would apply to commercial ships that are more than 79 feet long, exempting recreational and military craft.

The agency will take public comment for 75 days and issue a final permit in November 2012. It would take effect in December 2013, although the requirement to install ballast treatment technology would be phased in for different vessel size groups. The equipment wouldn’t have to be installed on individual ships until they are drydocked for regular maintenance, which Cmar said was a loophole that would give some vessels a grace period of many years.

The ballast treatment standards wouldn’t apply to the biggest Great Lakes cargo ships, which reach up to 1,000 feet long, because they always remain within the lakes and would not transport ballast from overseas. Cmar said he opposed the exemption because those vessels haul ballast water between Great Lakes ports, helping scatter invasive species brought in by saltwater ships.

The Coast Guard also is developing ballast regulations, which are under review by the Office of Management and Budget and are expected to be released next year. A draft version also called for adopting the international standards but eventually setting tougher requirements.

The Republican-led U.S. House voted this month to impose the international standards and make it harder for either EPA or the Coast Guard to go further.

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