Traverse City Environmentalists threaten suit over ballast rule Representatives of five organizations issued the warning during comment period

By John Flesher

Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Environmental groups on Tuesday threatened to file another lawsuit in their long-running battle with the federal government over ballast water discharges from cargo ships blamed for spreading invasive species in the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters.

Representatives of five organizations issued the warning on the final day of a public comment period on a regulation the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last fall. It would require oceangoing commercial vessels to install technology strong enough to kill at least some of the fish, mussels and even microorganisms such as viruses that lurk in ballast water before it's dumped into harbors after ships arrive in port. Environmentalists want tougher standards that would leave nothing alive in the water.

Ballast helps keep ships upright in rough waters. The EPA requires ocean vessels to exchange their ballast water at sea or rinse the tanks if empty to kill freshwater organisms, but some may survive in residual mud or pools of water.

The proposed rule is based on standards recommended by the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations, that the shipping industry says are achievable. Environmentalists say they are inadequate. They contend water cleanliness standards 100 to 1,000 times as strong are needed to kill virtually all organisms and prevent more attacks by invaders such as zebra and quagga mussels, which have seriously damaged Great Lakes ecosystems and cost an estimated $200 million a year for damage repairs and control measures.

The mussels clog water intake pipes, gobble plankton crucial to aquatic food chains and enable sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water column, contributing to growth of nuisance algae linked to botulism outbreaks that have killed thousands of shore birds.

Shipping groups say technology to meet those standards doesn't exist. A report issued last year by EPA's Science Advisory Board agreed. The industry contends if New York proceeds with its rule, international shipping will grind to a halt in the Great Lakes region because vessels must go through New York waters to reach the lakes.

The American Great Lakes Ports Association, which represents public port authorities on the U.S. side of the lakes, supports EPA's proposal but believes shipping companies should get more time to install ballast treatment equipment than the rule would allow, Executive Director Steve Fisher said. Environmentalists say the timeline is already too lenient. It would require installation to begin with a vessel's first dry-docking after 2014 or 2016, depending on its size.

The EPA is scheduled to make a final decision by November.

Published: Thu, Feb 23, 2012

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