Invasive Species Settlement: New Ballast Water Permit Should Help Protect American Coasts, Lakes and Rivers

Tighter restrictions on ships will limit introduction of aquatic invasive species currently degrading Great Lakes, coastal ecosystems and inland waters.

WASHINGTON, DC (March 8, 2011) – A settlement announced today between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and conservation organizations will curtail Invasive species that have been wreaking havoc on American waters for decades. The agreement requires EPA to issue a new permit regulating ballast water discharges from commercial vessels in settlement of lawsuits brought by a dozen conservation groups challenging the legality of EPA’s existing permit. 

Ballast water is the number one source for a rogue’s gallery of aquatic nuisances such as the so-called “fish Ebola,” the spiny water flea, and zebra and quagga mussels. These and other invasive species now sap the American economy of billions of dollars annually. After a long battle over how living pollution should be dealt with under the Clean Water Act, the settlement requires EPA to complete scientific reviews of the steps that ships should take to protect human health and the economy of communities on American coasts and in the Great Lakes.

“Until this point, EPA’s permit has left an open door to new invasions from ballast water dumping,” said Thom Cmar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “This settlement should prompt EPA to treat ‘living pollution’ as aggressively as it would an oil spill or toxic release.  With aquatic invasions occurring all over the country, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lakes to San Francisco Bay, this action is long overdue.”

Today’s settlement resolves court challenges brought in 2009 by the conservation groups, who contended that EPA’s current Vessel General Permit does not adequately protect U.S. waters from invasive species. Before the Vessel General Permit was issued in 2008, EPA had allowed ships to dump ballast water and other pollution without Clean Water Act permits. Conservation groups first petitioned EPA in 1999 to begin regulating ship discharges under the Clean Water Act, eventually prevailing in federal court in California in 2005, a legal victory that helped set the stage for today’s settlement.

“This settlement represents the first time in 35 years that EPA has agreed to control discharges of ballast water from ships in the same way that other industries are controlled when they discharge pollution to the nation’s waters,” said Nina Bell, Executive Director of Northwest Environmental Advocates.  “The EPA permit we challenged in this lawsuit did nothing more than allow shippers to continue business as usual – passing on the economic and environmental costs of invasive species to taxpayers.”

By requiring numeric limits on discharges of living pollution, the new permit should help to stem the rapid and broad movement of invasive species throughout American waters by forcing ships to adopt technologies to treat their ballast water. EPA has also agreed to require additional monitoring and reporting of vessels’ ballast water discharges in the new permit.

“The EPA needs to get it right this time,” said Marc Smith, senior policy manager at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “The millions of people, communities and businesses who have borne the brunt of the invasive species onslaught are now counting on the EPA to take strong action to protect our wildlife, environment and economy. The status quo will only allow the problem to get worse and more costly.”

Under the settlement, EPA has agreed to publish a draft of a new Vessel General Permit by November 2011 and to issue a new permit by November 2012 that would not go into effect until the current permit expires in December 2013. By allowing over two years from the time the permit is proposed to the time the new standards would go into effect, ship owners will have more time to comply with treatment requirements than they would otherwise receive. The settlement also requires EPA to encourage states to develop regionally consistent approaches to setting ballast water standards.

The following groups were party to the settlement: National Wildlife Federation, Indiana Wildlife Federation, League of Ohio Sportsmen, Minnesota Conservation Federation, Prairie Rivers Network, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Ohio Environmental Council, Northwest Environmental Advocates, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and People for Puget Sound. The Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School and Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center (PEAC) at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, OR, represented three of the organizations.

Following are quotes from other litigants in the case:

Larry Mitchell, president of the League of Ohio Sportsmen:

“This settlement puts EPA on track to do the right thing for the Great Lakes. EPA should place limits on ballast water discharges that are strict enough to prevent invasive species from entering our Great Lakes.”

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes:

"The Great Lakes have been global ground zero for freshwater invasions for decades. U.S. EPA's first cut at a permit didn't even come close to stemming the onslaught. We're heartened the agency appears to be getting serious about preventing new invasions before they happen."

Glynnis Collins, Executive Director of Prairie Rivers Network:

“Limiting ballast water dumping is an important step in what must be a larger effort to curb the spread of aquatic invasive species. The Great Lakes, the Mississippi River Basin -- all of our nation’s great waters are worth protecting.”