Ballast water facts, not hype

June 10, 2016 LCA

Recently, several articles, editorials and letters have perpetuated exaggerations and inaccuracies about the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA). We believe the public deserves the rest of the story.

VIDA consolidates vessel ballast water regulatory authority under the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), confirms the current USCG ballast water regulations, and provides for a periodic process to upgrade the USCG ballast water discharge standard (BWDS) with input from states and the EPA.

Some VIDA opponents claim it eliminates current requirements that vessels treat their ballast water, inferring that only judicial enforcement of the Clean Water Act (CWA) drives this requirement. Others claim this consolidation would make the Great Lakes vulnerable to more aquatic non-native species (ANS). Most cite the Lakes’ experience with zebra mussels as an example of what will happen. We agree that ANS introduced into the Lakes years ago caused harm, but the rest is hype.

What they do not say is that Lakes ANS were all introduced before 2006, when the USCG, under a separate authority than the CWA, began requiring vessels entering the Lakes from outside U.S. waters to exchange their ballast water with ocean water. Since then, no new ballast water-borne ANS were introduced into the Lakes, despite thousands of foreign vessels entering the Lakes since then.

These articles, editorials and letters claim the USCG’s rules for treating vessel ballast water are too weak, but they are just beginning to be implemented so their effectiveness cannot yet be fairly assessed. Also, ballast water treatment is in addition to the Lakes’ already highly effective ballast water exchange requirement. Equally important, the USCG and the EPA independently determined that the technology doesn’t yet exist to meet a more stringent BWDS. VIDA opponents also claim VIDA would freeze the current USCG discharge standard. This is a wild exaggeration of VIDA’s process for reviewing and improving the USCG BWDS. Also, contrary to some statements, the USCG has far greater experience regulating vessel discharges and inspecting vessels than the EPA or the states.

Some VIDA opponents claim it’s exemption from ballast water treatment for vessels serving only Lakes ports (“lakers”) will spread ANS among these ports. However, current EPA and USCG regulations already exempt lakers from ballast water treatment and instead require extensive best ballast water management practices. Since the USCG began requiring mid-ocean exchange for other vessels, lakers have discharged approximately 66 billion gallons of ballast water from the lower Lakes into Lake Superior waters. According to the EPA, U.S. Geological Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, no ANS have been moved anywhere in the Lakes by lakers. Clearly, lakers are not the problem.

Why is there opposition to VIDA? Some groups focused on general environmental goals see lawsuits against Federal, state, and private entities as their preferred mechanism of change and confuse competing and conflicting regulations with progress. However, laker operators were one of the first groups to sound the alarm on ANS. In 1993 we instituted our own best management practices to prevent ANS inter-lake movement. Laker operators work with government agencies, universities, research institutions, and environmental and engineering experts to move the state of science and technology forward. The Federal government is establishing ballast water management technological standards, inspection and monitoring criteria, and enforcement capabilities. We see few signs that VIDA opponents are working equally as hard for solutions that really work.

CWA was specifically designed for fixed industrial facilities handling substances such as industrial wastes, sewage, and garbage, not the Lake water used as ballast by lakers. Commercial aircraft and trains do not have to meet varying equipment requirements for each state they serve or pass through; they meet nationwide Federal standards. Applying the same approach to vessels will not have a disastrous effect on the health of the Lakes; it will just reduce conflicting and redundant regulations that cost good-paying jobs and increase consumer prices.

VIDA is well-reasoned, common sense legislation, and it will result in significant new protection against ANS threats. VIDA keeps the gate closed to aquatic non-native species and gives the Coast Guard, the agency who closed the gate, primary responsibility as our national invasive species gatekeeper.

For more information, contact:

Steve Fisher
Executive Director
American Great Lakes Ports Association

Tom Curelli
Great Lakes Maritime Task Force

Jim Weakley
Lake Carriers’ Association

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