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EPA sets final ballast regulations for ships

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued its final version of regulations for ships that carry ballast water, hoping to prevent them from also carrying invasive species into U.S. waters.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday issued its final version of regulations for ships that carry ballast water, hoping to prevent them from also carrying invasive species into U.S. waters.

The new EPA permit and accompanying regulations requires owners of most all freight-carrying vessels, including those coming to the Great Lakes, to adopt International Maritime Organization standards for killing living organisms in the on-board ballast tanks. The rule, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014, does not apply to "lakers," Great Lakes ships that never enter salt water.

The new plan has a rolling deadline, allowing ships to install ballast treatment technology during their next dry dock overhaul after 2014 or 2016, depending on how big the ship is. The EPA said it expects all ships to be retrofitted by 2018, although there appears to be no recourse for ships that don't meet that deadline.

Potential on-board systems include those using chemicals, ultraviolet light, filters, crushing or other technology to kill critters in the tanks.

The EPA action was forced by a lawsuit by several conservation and environmental groups that said the agency's original, 2008 ballast discharge permit regulations didn't go far enough to curb invasive species, what they call biological pollution, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

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Water moved in ship ballast tanks has been blamed for transporting dozens of foreign species into U.S. ocean and Great Lakes ports and then spreading them around -- species from quagga and zebra mussels, ruffe and goby to the fish-killing VHS virus. The Twin Ports are considered among the more vulnerable because many ships, including oceangoing freighters, arrive empty or lightly loaded with cargo and must carry ballast water for stability.

There are about 150 aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes, including about 45 in the Duluth-Superior harbor, not including plants.

Several states -- including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York and California -- have their own regulations. The U.S. Coast Guard also has its own rule, which is very similar to the EPA permit.

Minnesota's is the only ballast regulation that would apply to lakers, starting in 2016. While lakers don't bring new species in, they are blamed with spreading them around within the Great Lakes.

Wisconsin's law requires newly built ships to treat ballast starting next year, with existing ships retrofitted with ballast treatment technology by 2014.

Some conservation groups panned the IMO standard as too lax, allowing too many and too large of invaders to pass through the system and potentially invade new waters. California's state regulation requires treatment 100 times more strict.

Critics also blasted the agency's lack of a firm timeline to install ballast treatment technology.

"The Clean Water Act gives the EPA authority to stop invasive species from entering the Great Lakes in ballast water -- they just chose not to use it," said Rebecca Riley, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This failure threatens our economy and the single most important freshwater resource on the continent."

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Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lakes Carriers Association, the organization that represents U.S. flagged lakers, said his organization applauds the exemption for lakes-only vessels because they don't introduce any foreign species. But he withheld additional comment until he could digest the EPA regulations.

"It's a 400-page document that just came out an hour ago. We think we're OK, but I have to read it all first," Nekvasil told the News Tribune.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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