Senate Planning to Allow More Invasive Species in the Great Lakes

Had enough zebra mussels and other invasive species in the Great Lakes?  The shipping industry thinks, “apparently not.” We’ve known for decades that their ships’ ballast water has been the primary entryway for invasive species like quagga mussels, “fish ebola” and bloody red shrimp into the Great Lakes. Nonetheless, the industry’s  lobbyists have been working overtime pushing legislation that would exempt their ballast water discharges from the Clean Water Act. The exemption would shift the burden of invasive species away from the shipping industry and onto fishers and others who benefit from healthy Great Lakes.

Aquatic invasive species cost this country billions of dollars annually—from damage to the infrastructure for public water supplies, industry, and energy generation systems to the devastation of commercial and recreational fisheries. Zebra and quagga mussels  have upended the Great Lakes ecosystem—fueling rampant and sometimes toxic algae growth, collapsing the food chain and bringing native fisheries down with it, as well as destroying recreation. It took only ten years for the zebra mussel to spread into the Mississippi, Tennessee, Hudson, and Ohio River basins and since then it has moved into California, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah. There are now more quagga mussels in the Great Lakes than fish in all the world’s seas combined—and their shells cover portions of Lake Michigan’s bottom from the shores of Wisconsin all the way across to Michigan.

Instead of protecting U.S. waters from further expensive and dangerous invasions, the legislation shippers support moves us backwards, away from the responsible management of ballast water discharges. And it freezes in place measures that will be ineffective at both preventing new invasions and slowing the spread of the existing invasive species.

The legislation would give the shipping industry preferential treatment that no other industry receives, even pre-empting states’ rights to protect their own waters.

The bill turns existing law on its head by making it impossible for the Coast Guard to ever make the ballast water requirements more stringent. 

Every other industry has to strengthen its discharge standards, if, after 5 years, EPA finds there is a better and affordable technology.  The “test” in the bill is set up to lock-in 2012 ballast water technology forever.

For Great Lakes shippers, the “test” is still not enough.  The bill completely eliminates regulation of ballast water discharges for vessels operating within a “geographically limited area” specifically including “the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.” The idea of limiting regulations to ships that don’t leave a closed waterbody, like Lake Placid, may sound reasonable. But the Great Lakes are not like Lake Placid.  Under the bill ships in Lake Ontario could legally pick up invasive species and bring them along to Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes.

At this time, the bill is on its way to passage. It was added to the Coast Guard authorization bill in the Senate and is likely to be considered in mid-April.  Every member of Congress should oppose this special interest rollback of the Clean Water Act.

About the Authors

Scott Slesinger

Legislative Director

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