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Ship discharging ballast water. Photo: providence.edu
Ship discharging ballast water. Photo: providence.edu

NY ballast water regs spark international backlash

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New York state is pushing forward with plans to implement tough new rules designed to keep ships on the St. Lawrence Seaway from bringing in invasive plants and animals. The regulations are set to go into effect in 2013.

Researchers say the Seaway has opened the door to dozens of foreign organisms that are wreaking havoc on native ecosystems.

But opponents of the rules, led by the Canadian government, say they're too strict and would stifle trade and commerce in the region. Brian Mann has our story.

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Let’s say you’re the captain of a ship tied up at one of dozens of ports along the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Great Lakes. 

You’re taking on a cargo of iron ore or corn or salt.  And as you fill your hold, you keep your ship level by pumping water out of your ballast tanks – a process I watched in a little port city called Sorel, Quebec just east of Montreal.

There’s a big freighter here that’s tied up at the wharf.  And coming out from its stern, as long as I’ve been standing here is just an enormous gush of water. 

The trouble is that this water could have been collected just about anywhere on the planet.  James Tierney is assistant commissioner for water quality for New York state’s Conservation Department.  He's an expert on ballast water pollution.

"Ballast water may be sucked out of a port in the Black Sea, or Singapore, or Amsterdam.  And then it’s brought over and it’s released.  So ballast water has been a very effective mechanism to bring in all sorts of invasive species," Tierney says.

Tiny creatures literally hide in the scum and saltwater stored inside these ships. Once they're dumped here in the Seaway they are free to spread.  

And that’s just what they’ve done, turning up in waterways from Quebec in the east to Minnesota in the west. 

"Things like the zebra mussel, round goby, spiny waterfleas, quagga mussels, all of those things have come in through ship ballast tanks."

Jennifer Caddick heads a green group called Save the River.  On a brilliant summer day she’s taken me to a narrow stretch of the St. Lawrence Seaway near Clayton New York, not far from Lake Ontario. 

It looks like a healthy stretch of river.  But Caddick says just two of those alien invaders – the zebra mussel and the quagga mussel – have spread so rapidly and grown so densely that they are altering the entire food chain of the Great Lakes.  They're changing the chemistry in the water, and triggering nasty algae blooms.

 "So we’re seeing massive outbreaks of this cladophora algae, which along with it harbors bacteria.  And when cladophora algae dies and washes up on shore, it smells like sewage," she says.

Invasive species tend to get a lot less attention than other environmental problems — industrial pollution, say, or climate change.      

But JeffAlexander – an environmental journalist based in Ann Arbor Michigan – thinks the opening of the Seaway triggered a kind of slow-moving ecological disaster, far more devastating than the Gulf oil spill.

"You know an oil spill can be cleaned up to some extent, while invasive species, the problem just continues to grow and spread."

Alexander published a book last year called "Pandora’s Locks."  He argues that invasive organisms sneaking in through the Seaway could leave the Great Lakes unrecognizable, shredding the natural network of plants and animals that evolved over thousands of years.

"The truth is that nobody knows how this story is going to play out.  The scientists can’t do research fast enough to keep up with the changes.  And no one can tell you what the lakes will look like in 5, 10 or 25 years."

That danger has sparked an ugly international feud over just what kind of ballast water regulations are needed to keep new invaders out. 

Last year, New York state approved strict new regulations that could eventually force each cargo ship entering the Seaway to have its own miniature waste water treatment plant right on board. 

James Tierney with New York’s Conservation Department says that’s the only way to be sure nothing nasty gets through. 

"You have to put equipment on your ship that kills animals, bacteria, viruses, crustaceans that might be carried in ballast water."

New York’s regulation, which is scheduled to go into effect in August 2013, sets a standard for clean ballast water a hundred times more restrictive than current international rules established in 2008 – a fact that thrills environmentalists.

But the new standards infuriate some Federal officials in the US, including Collister Johnson.

Johnson heads the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the agency that operates the US portion of the shipping route.

"It's crazy.  There is no other jurisdiction in the world.  I’m talking not about states and provinces, but countries…that is proposing a set of ballast water regulations like the state of New York."

To reach the Great Lakes, ships have to pass through New York waters.  So in theory that means they will have to meet New York’s standards even if they don’t plan to discharge ballast water. 

But Johnson says the cost of new equipment and technology will simply force shipping companies to take their cargoes to other ports with less restrictive rules.

"It is a great concern to the Seaway because it would shut down the Seaway.  And it’s a great concern to Canada because it is impacting their sovereignty."

And this is one of the big complications.  It's not just US officials trying to sort this out.  There are dozens of different government agencies — from Canada, the US, the states and provinces, as well as international maritime organizations — all wrangling over what these ballast water standards should look like.  

At a meeting last month in Montreal, Canada, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, said the fact that New York moved forward unilaterally is causing a lot of confusion.

"Right now we sort of have the worst of both worlds.  We have individual states doing standards.  We have shippers who I guess in some reality could have to meet the most stringent.  But that situation is evolving."

The EPA and the US Coast Guard plan to propose their own updated ballast water rules in November and all sides say New York state will face enormous pressure to change its regulations to match those Federal standards — even if they're far less stringent.

The Canadian government is also pushing back.  At that same meeting in Montreal, Canadian environment minister Peter Kent warned that states and provinces shouldn't get too far in front of international standards.

"We just have to make sure that as time goes on we have to stay closely aligned so that we’re in step and complimentary."

So far no new international ballast water agreement is on the horizon and New York state is urging shipping companies to begin upgrading their equipment.  As negotiations and backroom talks continue, scientists say another new invasive plant or animal is making its way into the Seaway and the Great Lakes every six months.

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