Hard-Fought Great Lakes Protections Under Attack

Congress considering bill to roll back rules meant to prevent invasive species

May 18, 2017

Invasive species, like zebra mussels and round gobies, have wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes. Brought in via ballast water tanks on ocean-going ships, invasive species out-compete native species and destroy habitat. They also cost people in Great Lakes communities hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Unfortunately, the shipping industry is pushing  a bill in Congress that would roll back the rules that  protect the lakes from these harmful critters.

A known threat, but little action

Researchers warned about the zebra mussel threat at least as early as 1981. Initial preventative measures were put into place in the late 1990s. But, those rules just required ocean shippers to exchange the freshwater in their ballast tanks for salty ocean water. The idea was that freshwater critters could not survive salt water. The rules were a good step, but research shows that ballast exchange does not remove all animals, plants and pathogens from ballast tanks.

It took two acts of Congress, a lawsuit, and states passing their own rules to get federal requirements for actual ballast water treatment systems onboard ships started in 2008. But even after the U.S. EPA and Coast Guard started that process, excessively long timelines for phasing in the regulations mean most ships on the Great Lakes still do not have ballast water treatment installed.

Why has it taken so long for Congress and federal agencies to act?  The cargo shipping industry  fought for special treatment and exemptions from U.S. and state laws and rules over and over. And it is happening again.

Congress considering roll back of ballast clean up rules

Legislation is working its way through the U.S. Senate that would significantly weaken current ballast water rules.  The new law, called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), would eliminate U.S. EPA authority over ballast water pollution and open the door for more invasive species to enter the Great Lakes.

New invasions are all too real. In 2016 a new species of zooplankton was found in Lake Erie. Given that this critter is from the other side of the planet, researchers say that ballast water is a likely way it entered the lakes.  Yet rather than getting treatment technology to stop these invasions installed as quickly as possible, the shipping industry insists that our already too-lax rules are somehow the problem.

Groups from across the nation voice strong opposition

More than 70 groups from across the country have voiced strong opposition to VIDA. In a letter to Senators, this broad coalition of organizations denounced the bill as a costly blow to our protections against invasive species. The letter highlights that undermining federal regulations of ballast water discharge would escalate the harmful impact of invasive species on communities, infrastructure and local economies. This bad bill would place the exorbitant economic burden on taxpayers rather than the industry that’s creating the problem.

Read the full letter here.

Now is the time for Great Lakes champions to step up

Several members of the Great Lakes Congressional delegation aren’t buying it, and are working hard to fight off this bad ballast bill. But we need all of them. We urge the Senate to remove these harmful provisions from the U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act.

We heartily applaud the efforts of Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Gary Peters (D-MI) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), all members of the Senate’s Commerce Committee who voted no on VIDA.

Your voice is critical too. Contact your Members of Congress and urge them to oppose this bad ballast bill.