Ballast regs split environmentalists, shippers

Feb 21, 2017

Every year, hundreds of commercial ships make their way through the St. Lawrence seaway, taking on and letting out water to maintain stability as they load and unload cargo. This ballast water is regulated to prevent the spread of invasive species, but there is some disagreement about who should be in charge of those regulations.

Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the Great Lakes thought to be brought here in the ballast water of commercial ships.
Credit US Department of Agriculture

In the past, ships would take on seawater and dump it into the Great Lakes without considering consequences, which led to the spread of invasive species like zebra mussels. These days, ships have to clean and sterilize this ballast water in order to kill all the little aquatic hitchhikers.

Currently, the EPA and the Coast Guard both have the authority to set standards for how clean water has to be before it’s released, and every state with a port has the freedom to create and enforce their own standards. Right now most of the regulations between these different governmental bodies are in sync with one another, but there is no guarantee that they will stay that way.

Steve Fisher with the American Great Lakes Ports Association says could lead to "regulatory chaos."

“The option is there and the fear is there that they will at some point in the future not be harmonized with each other and we will have ships moving from state to state not able to conduct commerce,” he says.

A bill making its way through Congress is supposed to address this problem. The Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge Act gives the Coast Guard sole authority to enforce a uniform standard for sterilizing ballast water.

Not everyone is on board with the plan. Courts have ruled that current ballast water regulations are not compliant with the Clean Water Act, and environmental groups worry about locking in regulations that they see as too weak on the issue of water quality.

Rebecca Riley from the Natural Resources Defense Council says it’s also important to maintain states’ rights in the face of a presidential administration that has openly promised to roll back environmental protections.

“If the Trump administration isn’t willing to put in place the protections that we need to keep our water clean, it’s important that states are able to do so.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is the latest to speak out against a new bill on ballast water regulation. Schneiderman says this bill would weaken environmental protections in New York and other coastal states, and has called on leaders within the senate to vote against it.

The bill has been making its way through Congress for the last few years in various forms, and was recently introduced at the beginning of this year.