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Great Lakes View: Lawmakers shouldn't let opportunity for ballast water legislation go down the drain

State officials and environmental organizations swarmed Capitol Hill this summer, and they got what they wanted -- the U.S. Senate suspended work on critical legislation to regulate ships' ballast water and prevent the introduction of aquatic nui...

State officials and environmental organizations swarmed Capitol Hill this summer, and they got what they wanted -- the U.S. Senate suspended work on critical legislation to regulate ships' ballast water and prevent the introduction of aquatic nuisance species into the Great Lakes.

The issue of aquatic nuisance species has been a priority in the Great Lakes region. Legislation before the Senate Commerce Committee (S. 1578) would have established a new federal ballast water management program. For the first time it would have required commercial ship operators to install ballast water treatment systems. Arguably, it would have provided a win-win solution to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem without harming Great Lakes shipping.

But wait. Haven't state governments and environmental organizations been demanding such legislation? Yes. So what's going on?

In 2003, a number of environmental groups (some from the Great Lakes region) sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that ballast water discharges should be regulated by the states under the Clean Water Act. A federal district court in California agreed. Although the ruling is being appealed, the EPA and its state partners are beginning to prepare for the daunting task of regulating all discharges from vessels -- both commercial and recreational. On their behalf, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., challenged the Senate legislation and demanded that it not pre-empt the states from taking action on their own. As a result, work on the bill was suspended and the issue kicked to the back burner.

Environmental groups and state governments believe the California court provided them with everything they need. Unfortunately, they underestimate the challenge. The U.S. Coast Guard already has the physical and organizational infrastructure to regulate ship operators. It will take many years and considerable expense for the states to put a similar system in place. During that time, aquatic nuisance species will continue to plague the region.

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State governments and their friends in the environmental movement have taken a considerable risk. In a classic example of making "perfect" the enemy of "good," they failed to embrace a reasonable and effective solution to the ballast water problem. Instead, they gambled that they could hold out for better. As Congress becomes increasingly deadlocked over the federal budget, the war in Iraq and other issues, it is uncertain if the Senate will have time later this year to consider ballast water legislation.

Let's hope there is another chance.

John Jamian of Birmingham, Mich., is a representative of the Seaway Great Lakes Trade Association, a U.S.-based advocacy organization representing the interests of users of the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes waterway. Steve Fisher of Washington, D.C., is a representative of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, which represents the interests of the public port authorities on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes.

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