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Michigan attorney general joins 9 AGs to oppose ballast water bill

Feb 23, 2017

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is joining nine other attorneys general to oppose a bill in the U.S. Senate.

It would change how ballast water in ships is regulated. Invasive species can hitch a ride in ballast water.

The bill would create a single, national standard and pre-empt states from creating their own standards.

The shipping industry likes that. But the attorneys general are concerned about losing the ability to have stricter state standards.

Attorney General Schuette did not grant an interview for this story. But in a letter to Senators Mitch McConnell and Charles Schumer, the AGs say the bill would dramatically weaken defenses against invasive species. From the letter:

The Clean Water Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to scientifically develop and regularly improve uniform minimum pollution treatment standards, and then incorporate them as discharge requirements in permits that are renewed every five years. The Commercial Vessel Act takes the radical step of eliminating these vital Clean Water Act protections and relegates EPA– the federal agency with the greatest knowledge and experience in addressing water pollution – to an advisory role. The Commercial Vessel Act vests primary responsibility for controlling vessel pollution with the U.S. Coast Guard, an agency mainly focused on homeland security that has little water pollution expertise.

Right now, the EPA and the Coast Guard share authority for regulating ballast water. The bill would make the Coast Guard the lead agency.

Rebecca Riley is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago. She says the bill would weaken the EPA’s authority.

“It would exempt ballast water from the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Water Act is a law with a long track record for protecting our waters and making them as clean as they possibly can be. The whole point of this legislation is to exempt ballast water from the Clean Water Act’s protections,” she says.

Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi sponsored the bill. His office said he was not available for an interview, but his press secretary sent this statement:

The bill (S.168) would create nationally uniform, science-based standards for ballast water discharges that would be consistent with the highest standards technologically possible. By creating a single national standard, ballast water management system manufacturers should be able to more quickly improve their technology.

Although the Coast Guard would only review the standards once every ten years, Governors would be authorized to petition the Secretary to review more stringent standards. If those standards could be achieved and detected, and the technology and systems exist and are commercially available, they would become the new national standard.

The USCG is charged with 11 statutory missions.  Of those, one relates specifically to environmental protection – Marine Environmental Protection.  The Coast Guard’s Marine Environmental Protection program develops and enforces regulations to avert the introduction of invasive species into the maritime environment, prevent unauthorized ocean dumping, and prevent oil and chemical spills.  As a result, the Coast Guard dedicates considerable resources to this mission.  Charging the Coast Guard with the development of a national standard for ballast water regulations makes sense as the agency is already partly responsible for the development of ballast water standards and regulation, certification of ballast water technology, and enforcement of ballast water regulation.

Those opposed to the bill say it puts commercial shipping interests on equal footing with environmental protection.