Zebra mussels, “bloody red shrimp,” quagga mussels and round gobies are a few of the invasive species that have hitched a ride into the Great Lakes in the ballast tanks of ships over the past half-century. These critters have devastated native organisms and infrastructure, costing billions of dollars per year in harm to the fishing industry and to water intake systems. Zebra mussels alone cost U.S. taxpayers from $1 billion to $5 billion annually.
Most invasive species in the Great Lakes came from fresh waterways in Asia and Eastern Europe, and were transported in ballast tanks – containers holding a mix of water, sediment and seaweed that’s pumped into ships to stabilize them when they are not weighed down with cargo. When a freighter takes on a load, the ballast is pumped out.
For decades, environmentalists, legislators and fishermen have been demanding ballast water regulation.
Starting this shipping season in March, a rule passed by an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation called the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation will provide what advocates call a sorely needed stop-gap solution.
All ocean-going ships will have to rinse out their empty ballast tanks with seawater at least 200 nautical miles from the mouth of the Saint Lawrence Seaway that leads into the Great Lakes. This saltwater “swish and spit,” as it is known, kills most freshwater invasive species. Advocates call this a big improvement on previously existing guidelines – wherein U.S. Coast Guard regulations mandated that ships develop and report individual ballast water management plans.
“The shipping industry was saying they only wanted to work with the Coast Guard, but the Coast Guard wasn’t getting the job done,” says Joel Brammeier, of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based advocacy group.
The 1990 National Aquatic Invasive Species Act already mandates that ocean-going ships clean their ballast tanks at sea. But that law includes a loophole for ships claiming to have “no ballast on board.” Known as NOBOBs, these ships make up about 90 percent of the ocean-going freighters – or “salties” – entering the Great Lakes.
Most salties arrive without ballast because they are loaded with cargo. But a residue of plant and animal life remains in the tank, and once a ship unloads at a port, it takes on ballast water that then travels to another port, where it empties the ballast – along with invasive species.
The new rule, however, applies to all ships, including NOBOBs. “This rule is good but not good enough,” says Jeff Skelding, national campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, a regional network of various environmental and advocacy groups. “Flushing will get rid of many but not all of the organisms in those tanks.”
Ballast can be sterilized through several methods, such as using ultraviolet light, chlorination, filtration, de-oxygenation or chemicals.
In 2007, Michigan passed legislation requiring ships to certify their ballast treatment before docking at state ports. The law has so far survived an ongoing legal challenge from the shipping company Fednav International. Fednav, which didn’t respond to an interview request for this story, has argued the law interferes with interstate commerce rights.
Wisconsin and Ohio are considering laws similar to Michigan’s. Meanwhile, the Port of Milwaukee is working on a system to dump ballast onshore and treat it before returning it to Lake Michigan.
On the federal level, industry-supported legislation pending in the House and Senate would require ships to have on-board ballast treatment systems by Dec. 31, 2013. But the Coast Guard would be in charge of enforcing the law, and it could delay implementation indefinitely if it deems adequate technology for on-board treatment is not available.
The Alliance and other environmental groups oppose the federal legislation because, along with lacking an enforceable deadline, it would preempt state laws like Michigan’s and would not force ships to comply with the Clean Water Act.
Last May, a coalition of environmental groups proposed a moratorium on ocean-going vessels in the Great Lakes until Congress passes meaningful ballast regulation legislation.
“It’s a no-brainer,” says Brammeier. “People are so frustrated because we know what the problem is and we know what the solution is, but no one is doing it.”
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.