The U.S. Senate on Wednesday ended years of stalemate by giving final approval to a bill that will regulate ships' ballast nationwide and let Great Lakes states, as a group, add a more protective layer of ballast water rules to keep out invasive species such as zebra mussels.
The ballast regulations - included in the Coast Guard Authorization Act - have been debated since a 2006 court ruling ordering the government to include ballast discharge under Clean Water Act enforcement. But until now ship owners and environmental groups had battled to a draw in Congress over how the rules should be applied, with no legislation able to advance.
The Senate bill, passed on a voice vote, is considered a compromise that calls for specific ballast water treatment regulations but also calls for uniform standards across the nation rather than a state-by-state patchwork of rules.
Unlike a similar bill that failed in the Senate in April, the new bill keeps ballast water regulation under authority of the federal Clean Water Act and Environmental Protection Agency, with the Coast Guard enforcing the rule - key provisions for environmental and conservation groups.
Ship owner groups - including the American Waterway Operators, U.S. Shipping Industry Coalition and Lake Carriers Association - previously had sought to move ballast regulation entirely under the Coast Guard and out from the Clean Water Act.
"We applaud the Great Lakes champions in the Senate who fought hard to protect the Great Lakes from the threat of aquatic invasive species," said Molly Flanagan, vice president of policy for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "We greatly appreciate the Senators who have listened to the science on this issue and heard the concerns of Great Lakes region residents."
While eventually quashing state regulations that differ from the new federal standards, when they are developed, the bill does allow for Great Lakes states, working through the Great Lakes Commission, to develop enhanced regional standards for vessels operating within the Great Lakes system. Those regional rules would need EPA and Coast Guard approval.
Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, which represents 13 American companies that operate 45 U.S. freighters on the Great Lakes, said the Senate bill is "a good balance, achieving protection of both the economy and the environment. Importantly, it includes Great Lakes-specific provisions that provide the flexibility to establish uniform practices and standards more protective of our Great Lakes."
In addition to requiring onboard treatment and specific ballast regulations for saltwater ships the bill also makes permanent an existing temporary regulation requiring saltwater ships to continue exchanging their ballast water far out at sea so saltwater kills any freshwater organisms before they can invade U.S. ports.
Ships take up and release water from ballast tanks as a balancing measure.
The bill also includes a $50 million appropriation to search for new invasive species and continue development of onboard treatment systems for freighters, primarily aimed at the Great Lakes.
The full House still must act on the Senate version and then send the bill to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.
While foreign species may have come across the ocean in saltwater vessels, some advocates for state regulations say lakers move millions of gallons of ballast water between infested ports every year and are a likely pathway to spread invaders, especially in and out of Duluth-Superior, by far the busiest of Great Lakes ports. Lakes vessels would not be included in the federal rule because they don't enter the oceans.
Minnesota has rules on the books to apply the International Maritime Organization standards to Great Lakes freighters in coming years. So far, the ship owners have said they haven't found a system that will work on lakers.
"The state rules will remain in effect while the new federal standards are put into place, and that's going to take some time," said Jeff Stollenwerk, industrial water section manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, responding to Wednesday's bill passage. "But the states, ultimately, won't be able to enforce independent standards. We can however work together to create a regional standard."
Ballast treatment is considered important to stop the wave of foreign aquatic invasive species that has flooded U.S waters in recent decades. Those species often hitchhike from faraway ports in Europe and Asia and, if they survive the trip, can be released into U.S. ports, including the Great Lakes. That's what scientists say happened with zebra mussels, goby, ruffe, spiny water fleas and other species that are spreading in U.S. waters.
A federal district court ruling in 2006 ordered the federal government to impose the Clean Water Act on ballast water. The lower-court ruling was upheld by a U.S. Appeals Court decision in 2008 .
While the shipping industry said the Clean Water Act was never intended to regulate ships, environmental groups say that no single industry should be exempt from the law, noting biological pollution like invasive species are often worse than point-source chemicals that can be cleaned up. Once invasive species are introduced, it's often impossible to curb their numbers or predict their impact as they spread.
In February the News Tribune reported the finding of another foreign aquatic invasive species in the Twin Ports harbor - this time a small invertebrate called the bloody red shrimp. It's not yet clear if the finding signals a possible invasion or was just a single critter, and it's not clear how they got here. The species, native to the Caspian region of eastern Europe, was found in Allouez Bay, not far from the Burlington Northern ore docks.
After a century of foreign invasive species that swam or hitchhiked across the oceans, the Great Lakes have seen a dramatic decline in new species since the so-called "swish-and-spit'' ballast exchange at sea was imposed by the Coast Guard in 2006. Before the ballast exchange, some 185 foreign species invaded the Great Lakes from overseas. Since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, allowing unfettered access to the Great Lakes by oceangoing ships, more than half of those invading species are believed to have arrived in ships' ballast.