Like Groundhog Day, the Ballast Water Bill Is Back Again

It feels like Groundhog Day.....again. Because the Senate Commerce Committee just snuck what is essentially the same ballast water bill we have been beating back every year into the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act. And then they voted it to the Senate floor. The legislation is custom-designed to allow the shipping industry to operate outside the Clean Water Act, the law every other industry dumping in our waters must follow, and it could have devastating consequences.

We’re not the only ones who think the bill is a disaster. A bipartisan group of attorney generals from Illinois, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, California, Maine, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington sent a letter to Congress opposing the bill because it will increase the risk of new invasive species like zebra mussels, quagga mussels, and Asian green mussels. And many Commerce Committee members voted against the Coast Guard bill yesterday based on their opposition to the ballast water provision.    

Ballast water discharged from ships is the primary source of aquatic invasive species in U.S. waters. Once introduced, these species damage public and private infrastructure and devastate both commercial and recreational fisheries, costing this country billions of dollars every year.

This bill will make expensive and dangerous species invasions more likely in the future. It would give the shipping industry preferential treatment that no other industry receives by exempting it from the Clean Water Act. It would make it virtually impossible for the Coast Guard to strengthen the standards regulating ballast water, ever. And most distressingly, the bill would exempt “geographically limited area[s]” like the Great Lakes from regulation all together.

Industry argues that the standard this legislation locks in, which EPA approved in 2013, will protect our waters. But we know that’s not true. That standard still allows live species in ballast water, which means it will still result in new species invasions. And the Second Circuit ruled that the standard did not comply with the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act ramps up protections for our water over time based on new technology; this new legislation prevents that. And that’s why it’s a problem. We’ll be locking in old technology that we know is inadequate for the foreseeable future.

Sadly, a study from the Smithsonian Research Center shows that existing weak protections and increased shipping have resulted in far more invasive species loads (rather than an overall decrease) along our waterways. That is a significant risk that the action in Congress is not going to improve. 

About the Authors

Rebecca Riley

Senior Attorney, Land & Wildlife program

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