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Will NY's tough ballast water rules shut down commerce? Photo: USGS
Will NY's tough ballast water rules shut down commerce? Photo: USGS

New York's tough ballast water rules attacked in Congress

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New York state is facing new pressure to scrap tough ballast water regulations that are set to go into effect next year. The rules are designed to stop invasive species from reaching the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes.

But as Brian Mann reports, Republicans in Congress say New York should be stripped of hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal EPA funding if the regulations aren't scrapped.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

New York’s ballast water rules would require every freighter passing through the St. Lawrence Seaway to have a miniature wastewater treatment plant right on board, designed to kill any plants or animals that might have hitched a ride with the ship from ports overseas.

James Tierney, assistant commissioner for water quality for New York state’s Conservation Department, told NCPR last month that tougher measures are needed to stop new invasives from getting in and wreaking havoc on the environment.

"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 said.

Ohio Republican congressman Steve LaTourette wants the regulations scrapped
Ohio Republican congressman Steve LaTourette wants the regulations scrapped

New York’s ballast water regulations are the toughest in the world and Ohio Republican Congressman Steve LaTourette said if implemented, they would shut down the St. Lawrence Seaway.

"If New York is permited to go forward with standards that can't be met with any technology that exists today, you're going to shut down commerce on the Great Lakes," LaTourette said.

Earlier this month, LaTourette added an amendment to the bill that funds the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency that would strip funding for environmental programs from New York state if the ballast water regulations are implemented.

"I believe - based on the phone calls that the governor of New York has been making to members of his delegation - we have New York's attention," said Rep. LaTourette.

But environmental groups say New York state has demonstrated that it’s willing to work with the shipping industry while new onboard wastewater systems are designed. Jennifer Caddick is with Save the River in Clayton.

"New York actually over the winter sent a letter to all of the shippers that would be impacted by this world and acknowledged some of the difficulties getting this technolgoy on board ships and they extended the deadlines," Caddick said.

Some industry groups say the current international ballast water rules implemented in 2006 are good enough. Those regulations requires ships to dishcharge all ballast water while on the high seas.  Tanks are then flushed with sea water in an effort to purge any creatures that might survive in the Great Lakes’ freshwater environment. 

Green groups say some of the invasive species that they now worry about can actually survive in salt water, or can burrow down into the sediments that gather in ballast water tanks. 

"Taking a chance that the current regulations are enough is just not a risk that I'm willing to take as a citzen of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin," Caddick said.

This issue cuts across party lines. Two North Country state senators – both Republicans – have blasted LaTourette’s legislation in Congress and they support New York’s tough ballast water rules.

Patty Ritchie and Joe Griffo sent a letter to New York’s congressional delegation July 21 arguing that the rules protect “the environment, the critical sport fisheries and the economy of the [North Country] region.”

Congressman Bill Owens, a Democrat, told NCPR that he thinks the strict ballast water rules do go too far.

"I think they pose some difficult issues as it relates to commerce along the river. I think we may have some treaty questions with Canada," Owens said. "Clearly it would be very debilitating because as I understand it there isn't the scientific capability to do what New York state has requested. That said, I think Mr. LaTourette's response is probably extreme as well. Clearly we need to reach some form of compromise on this."

Before Rep. LaTourette introduced his legislation, New York state already faced intense pressure to bring its ballast water rules into compliance with Federal guidelines expected to be proposed this November. It appears likely that those rules will be far less strict.

The EPA and the US Coast Guard plan to propose their own national ballast water regulations this November.

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