EPA Permit Too Weak to Protect Great Lakes, U.S. Waters from Ballast Water Invaders

Conservation groups call for stronger protections, adherence to Clean Water Act

02-21-2012 // Jordan Lubetkin
Zebra mussels on a stick

The U.S. EPA is failing to uphold its federal Clean Water Act duty to protect the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters from the introduction and spread of invasive species via ships’ ballast water discharge, conservation groups say in comments (pdf) to the agency today.

The organizations call on EPA to strengthen a proposed permit to regulate ballast water discharges from commercial vessels. The comment period on the permit ends today.

“The EPA’s new proposed permit isn’t tough enough to prevent the next harmful invader from slipping into our waters,” said Thom Cmar, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Clean Water Act provides the tools to finally slam the door on invasive species stowing away in vessels’ ballast tanks, but EPA is still not proposing the strong federal standards we need to fully protect the Great Lakes and other economically valuable but vulnerable watersheds throughout the country.”

Invasive species introduced and spread via ballast water discharge are already wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters. A litany of non-native invaders— including zebra mussels, quagga mussels, spiny water fleas and round gobies—have turned the Great Lakes ecosystem on its head, altering the food web and threatening the health of native fish and wildlife. Non-native ballast water invaders cost Great Lakes citizens, utilities, cities and businesses at least $1 billion every five years in damages and control costs, according to research by the University of Notre Dame.

“A rogue’s gallery of nasty species released in the ballast water of freighters has wrought economic and environmental harm in waters across the country,” said Jennifer Nalbone, Director of Navigation and Invasive Species for Great Lakes United. “People, businesses and communities deserve a solution that once and for all slams the door on aquatic invasive species. While the pace of federal regulatory development has recently picked up after being grossly inadequate and slow for decades, the proposed permit must be strengthened so that it offers the strongest water quality protections.”

Despite the staggering costs associated with the damage caused by invasive species, the EPA has resisted taking action on the issue for decades. The proposed permit to regulate ballast water discharges comes after a long legal battle. Now, as the nation celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, advocates are working to ensure the agency finally issues a permit that shuts the door on invasive species.

“The Great Lakes have been global ground zero for invasions and ought to be a global leader in prevention,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “We’ve waited long enough. EPA has the opportunity to apply the protections our waters sorely need. Let’s get it right this time.”

The proposed ballast water permit takes modest steps to reduce the risk of ballast-mediated introductions. The permit:

  • Requires ships to install technology that meets the International Maritime Organization’s standard to treat ballast water
  • Requires ships entering the Great Lakes to employ the added protection of exchanging ballast water to flush out and kill non-native freshwater organisms

Conservation groups assert that the permit still leaves the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters vulnerable to the introduction and spread of invasive species—and does not adhere to the Clean Water Act. The groups are asking the EPA to make the following improvements to the permit:

  • Adopt a zero-discharge standard for invasive species
  • Adopt the most protective technology standards nationwide
  • Develop standards for lakers, ships that ply the Great Lakes
  • Develop a faster implementation timeline to implement new technology standards

“Not only does EPA's permit fail to meet federal law, but the agency has accepted the shipping industries' time frame for installing ballast water treatment without reservation,” said Nina Bell, Executive Director of the Portland, OR-based Northwest Environmental Advocates. “As a result, EPA’s proposed action will require only half of all ships to have installed treatment by 2016 with the other half dragging out until 2021. After 12 years and three lawsuits, EPA's proposal is too little, too late to protect the nation’s environment and economy.”

Now the states must certify EPA’s permit. The EPA must issue a final permit by November 30, 2012.

“There is still time to get this right,” said Marc Smith, senior policy manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office. “Half-measures will not cut it. Prevention is the only responsible course of action to stop the influx of living, breathing, biological pollution into U.S. waters. A failure to confront this problem will allow the problem to get worse and more costly. We have solutions. It is time to use them.”

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