Stopping hitchhikers in ballast tanks

Apr 19, 2012

Ships entering the Great Lakes can carry water from foreign ports. That water is held in their ballast tanks. It helps stabilize the ship.

Now, anytime you hear the term ballast water... do your eyes glaze over? Maybe you start thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner? Okay, so it’s not the sexiest topic. But it matters because sneaky little invasive species can hide in the ballast water... and catch a ride across the ocean.

“Invasive species, scientists think, are the worst problem facing the Great Lakes. They threaten the Great Lakes health, they threaten to crash the ecosystem, they threaten our economy.”

That’s Andy Buchsbaum. He directs the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation. He says when ships dump their ballast water in the Great Lakes, the invaders can get out.

“And if they find each other and fall in love, you have families of those critters and you actually have some real population problems like zebra mussels going wild in the Great Lakes.”

Zebra mussels have caused all kinds of havoc with Great Lakes ecosystems. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 30 percent of the invasive species in the Great Lakes have come in through ballast water.

The EPA and the Coast Guard have been trying to solve this problem. One of the main approaches is for ships to exchange ballast water with saltwater before entering the Great Lakes.

“It kills some of species in that ballast water but not all of them.”

So... now, the Coast Guard and the EPA are taking things a step further. The Coast Guard has issued a final rule... and the EPA has proposed a new standard. They both require ships to install on-board technology to treat ballast water to kill invasive species.

It might be a chemical treatment, something like chlorine. Or they could use ultraviolet light on the critters and then starve them of oxygen.

Andy Buchsbaum says... these new regulations are a good start. But he says they’re still too weak.

“If you have a thousand critters in your discharge which is allowed by some of these standards, you certainly could have a breeding population. It’s not good enough to be close to protective, you actually have to be protective. You have to get down close to zero critters in your discharge before you can really protect the Great Lakes.”

But a spokesperson for the Coast Guard argues they had to start somewhere. Lorne Thomas is with the Ninth Coast Guard District based in Cleveland.

“We need to get a standard out there that industry can meet now. It’s probably better to get the treatment systems on ships right now instead of putting a higher standard, be it a hundred or thousand times standard out there and then postponing the implementation of that standard by several years until that technology was ready.”

It’s worth noting there’s an exemption in the rules. Ships that stay within the Great Lakes are called lakers. Those ships can also move invasive species around in their ballast water. But under the new federal rules, they don’t have to treat their ballast water.

“All the lakers carry quantities of ballast water ten to twenty times what’s normally carried on other vessels. So there aren’t that many systems, in fact, there might not be any that can handle the ballast carried aboard the thousand footers, which can be upwards of 30,000 tons of ballast.”

Lorne Thomas says he expects the Coast Guard will require some kind of ballast treatment on lakers... when there’s technology that will work.

The shipping industry generally likes the new federal regulations.

Stuart Theis is the executive director of the United States Great Lakes Shipping Association. He says the industry wants one clear standard.

“You know, there are eight Great Lakes states and we’ve had to deal with what you’d call a crazy quilt of regulations that every time a ship went to a different port, whether it was Ohio or Michigan or Minnesota, each of the states had their own requirements.”

But shippers might still have to work with a patchwork of rules. States with stricter standards on the books can keep them.

The Great Lakes states have until the end of June to decide whether they want the EPA’s ballast water rules to have more teeth.