NY Ballast Water Decision: Good for the Great Lakes

NWF and NRDC Help Notch a Win with Implications Throughout the Great Lakes

CHICAGO (June 1, 2009) -- A New York State Supreme Court Justice dismissed a challenge brought by shipping interests against the state’s tough new ballast water requirements, which are designed to limit the introduction of more invasive species into the Great Lakes. Legal experts at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and National Wildlife Federation (NWF) hail the win as a huge victory for states in the region that have taken an aggressive stand to limit dumping of water containing biological pollution from ocean going vessels. Alien species have already cost the Great Lakes economy billions of dollars.

“These rules don’t just protect the ecosystem, they help defend multi-billion dollar tourism, fishing, and recreational boating industries in New York and throughout the Great Lakes,” said Thom Cmar, an attorney at NRDC. “New York is facing an alien invasion of its waters. By putting up these rules as a strong first line of defense, the state has joined Michigan and California as leaders in the fight to protect our waterways. It is time for the federal government to step up and join them.”

Due to the incredible environmental threat posed by invasive species, lawyers from NRDC intervened in the shipping industry lawsuit alongside the State of New York, representing NWF. The May 21 decision of Justice Robert Sackett of the New York State Supreme Court, Albany County, rejected shipping industry arguments that the New York ballast water regulations were illegal because they were stricter than the U.S. EPA's nationwide discharge permit. "It is undisputable that ballast water on ocean-going vessels ... is a source of significant potential and actual biological pollution for the state's water systems, in the form of harmful aquatic invasive species," Sackett said in the ruling.

"This decision reaffirms that invasive species are damaging the Great Lakes' economy, quality and our way of life." said Marc Smith, State Policy Manager with National Wildlife Federation. "This ruling sends a strong message to other Great Lakes states and the EPA, after 30 years of inaction, to finally slam the door on invasive species by requiring the shipping industry to install effective protections against invasive species."

The New York court's ruling that states have authority to adopt ballast water rules that are more protective than federal standards is consistent with the decision last August by the federal appeals court in Cincinnati to uphold Michigan's ballast water rules against a similar shipping industry challenge. NRDC and NWF also intervened in that case, along with other environmental groups, to defend the challenged rules. 

The State of Wisconsin has also proposed ballast water rules that exceed the federal permit standards and reflect the need to protect a huge array of interests in the Great Lakes. In Minnesota, NWF and the Minnesota Conservation Federation have challenged the State's refusal to adopt similar requirements.

The Great Lakes are a unique ecosystem representing 1/5 of the Earth's surface fresh water, but the vitality of the ecosystem has been threatened by alien species that have wreaked havoc on native fish and plants. New species are arriving at an average of one every six months. The toll has been breathtaking. The entire Lake Michigan ecosystem has been changed by invasive species. The filtering of invasive mussels has, for the first time ever, allowed the lake floor to be carpeted with algae. These conditions have helped the invasive round goby become the most numerous fish in the lake, while all but eliminating many of the native species. In the 80’s, high profile invasions by the zebra mussel and sea lamprey decimated local drinking water infrastructure and fishing industries.

The ruling can be viewed online at http://docs.nrdc.org/water/files/wat_09060101a.pdf

More information on invasive species in the Great Lakes can be found at www.nwf.org/greatlakes

Check the Switchboard blog for commentary from NRDC’s science and legal teams at http://switchboard.nrdc.org/