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Should the shipping industry do more to stop invasives?  (Source:  USGS)
Should the shipping industry do more to stop invasives? (Source: USGS)

Top EPA official embraces NY's controversial ballast water rules

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For the first time, a top official with the US Environmental Protection Agency has publicly embraced New York's tough new ballast water rules. Those regulations, scheduled to go into effect next year, are designed to stop invasions of non-native animals and plants, like zebra mussels and the spiny water flea.

Industry groups, members of congress and some Federal officials are pushing back hard, arguing that the regulations set standards that can't be met by existing technology. The want New York's rules scrapped. And they're lobbying the EPA to create national ballast water guidelines that are far less strict.

But as Brian Mann reports, the top EPA administrator in New York says new regulations should push the shipping industry to do more to help stop invasives.

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Top EPA official Judith Enck thinks so.  (Source:  EPA)

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For months, New York’s department of environmental conservation has been hammered by members of commerce and by Federal officials.

Critics say New York’s ballast water rules – designed to stop invasive species – would shut down commerce in the state’s waterways and pinch off shipping access to the Great Lakes.

Collister Johnson, who heads the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, spoke with North Country Public Radio earlier this summer.

"It is a great concern to the Seaway because it would shut down the Seaway," Johnson said.  "It is a great concern to the port of New York and New Jersey because it would shut them down."

But during an in-depth interview with NCPR, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top administrator for New York and New Jersey praised New York state’s ballast water regulations.  Judith Enck spoke while on a visit to Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks.

"We've learned a lot from the New York regulations," Enck said.  "I really applaud the New York state department of environmental conservation for sticking with the regulations that they have."

Those regulations – which haven’t yet gone into effect – require every ship passing through New York state waters – from New York harbor to the St. Lawrence Seaway – to install a small wastewater treatment plant in their ballast water tanks.

 James Tierney is assistant commissioner for water quality with New York’s Conservation Department.

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

Opponents of the policy, including Republican congressman Steve LaTourette from Ohio, say that kind of hardware isn’t even available yet.

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

But the EPA’s Judith Enck – who helped develop New York state’s ballast rules when she served in the Spitzer administration – says the regulations are designed to spur development of new technologies.

"If you look at the history of environmental regulation over the lat forty years, there have been regulations where companies have said, 'We just don't have the technology to achieve these numbers.'  And it has driven innovation and over time dramatic reductions in pollution.  Just like we have seen that with the Clean Air Act, we will see that on the issue of ballast water."

The EPA and the Coast Guard are currently developing their own new national guidelines for ballast water and it’s unclear how stringent those will be. 

Industry groups say the current ballast purging method used by ships before they enter New York waters is adequate. 

But Enck says the industry should expect to do more.

"I think the DEC regs are a really fine example of the need for the industry to invest in innovative technologies to deal with this problem.  The status quo is not acceptible.  We are going to lose major bodies of water because of invasive species that are brought in from distant locations."

The EPA’s ballast water rules are expected to be unveiled in November.

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