Greater restrictions will be placed on ship ballast water treatment, aiding in the fight against invasive species in the Great Lakes such as Asian Carp, according to a settlement reached last week in a 2009 lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The suit was filed against the federal agency by a coalition among Michigan, other Great Lakes states, and a dozen environmental groups.
Whole ecosystems are transported from one part of the world to another through the shipping industry’s current saltwater flushing process known as ‘swish and spit,’ said Thom Cmar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Until this point, EPA’s permit has left an open door to new invasions from ballast water dumping,” he said. “This settlement should prompt EPA to treat ‘living pollution’ as aggressively as it would an oil spill or toxic release. With aquatic invasions occurring all over the country, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lakes to San Francisco Bay, this action is long overdue.”
According to a March 8 press release by the State of Michigan, the settlement agreement outlines a process for the EPA to establish common protective standards for ballast water discharges to all United States waters. Key elements of the settlement agreement include:
- Arranging for scientific reports, speeding up the time line for issuance of the next Vessel General Permit (VGP);
- Facilitating regional communication for ballast water regulation; and,
- Providing information on the development of the next VGP requirements.
“The Great Lakes define the state of Michigan,” said Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in the release. “But our waters are now home to more than 180 aquatic invaders, introduced and spread by unregulated ballast water. I urge the EPA to move swiftly on plans to offer a long-term protection strategy for the Great Lakes.”
“This agreement moves the EPA forward to more effective methods that will protect our Great Lakes and the jobs that depend upon them,” said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in the statement.
The NRDC statement said:
Ballast water is the number one source for a rogue’s gallery of aquatic nuisances such as the so-called “fish Ebola,” the spiny water flea, and zebra and quagga mussels. These and other invasive species now sap the American economy of billions of dollars annually. After a long battle over how living pollution should be dealt with under the Clean Water Act, the settlement requires EPA to complete scientific reviews of the steps that ships should take to protect human health and the economy of communities on American coasts and in the Great Lakes.
[The settlement] resolves court challenges brought in 2009 by the conservation groups, who contended that EPA’s current Vessel General Permit does not adequately protect U.S. waters from invasive species. Before the Vessel General Permit was issued in 2008, EPA had allowed ships to dump ballast water and other pollution without Clean Water Act permits. Conservation groups first petitioned EPA in 1999 to begin regulating ship discharges under the Clean Water Act, eventually prevailing in federal court in California in 2005, a legal victory that helped set the stage for today’s settlement.
By requiring numeric limits on discharges of living pollution, the new permit should help to stem the rapid and broad movement of invasive species throughout American waters by forcing ships to adopt technologies to treat their ballast water. EPA has also agreed to require additional monitoring and reporting of vessels’ ballast water discharges in the new permit.
“The Great Lakes have been global ground zero for freshwater invasions for decades. U.S. EPA’s first cut at a permit didn’t even come close to stemming the onslaught. We’re heartened the agency appears to be getting serious about preventing new invasions before they happen,” said Joel Brammeier, President and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, another litigant in the lawsuit.
Under the settlement agreement, the EPA will study available ballast water treatment options and release its findings by May 31, 2011 and will issue new treatment requirements by November, 2012. The new policies will go into effect in December, 2013.
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