WASHINGTON — A U.S. Senate Committee today approved a measure that would set a single national standard for ballast water discharges from maritime vessels, preempting states from enacting stricter standards and, critics say, exposing the Great Lakes to greater danger from invasive species.
This morning's voice vote by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee represented a key hurdle crossed by the so-called Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, which maritime shippers have backed for years, arguing that a confusing patchwork of regulations wastes money and time while doing little to help water quality.
"Without (this change), thousands of commercial vessels will spend billions of dollars installing ballast water management systems to meet the federal standard but will still be at risk of fines and penalties for violating several different state standards these (systems) can't meet," the Lake Carriers Association, representing vessel operators in the Great Lakes, said in an earlier statement in support of the legislation.
But dozens of environmental groups as well as various federal, state and local officials across the country have voiced serious reservations. They say the change — which also places sole responsibility for regulating discharges with the Coast Guard rather than the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act — increases the risk posed by invasive species that can harm habitat and infrastructure.
This week, Gov. Rick Snyder, in a letter to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said the measure limits government's ability to address invasive species, which he called "among the most serious threats to the environmental and economic health of the Great Lakes."
Noting the ongoing concerns, committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., and the ranking Democrat, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, said they will continue to work with critics on a compromise before the legislation reaches the floor of the Senate. Even with a Republican majority, the measure — which was attached to a Coast Guard reauthorization bill — could be in trouble without enough Democratic support.
Zebra and quagga mussels, just two of the more than 185 non-native species that have become established in the Great Lakes, are blamed for millions of dollars in damage, clogging water intakes at power plants and other utilities and attaching themselves to boats. In his letter to Peters, Snyder said overall damage from invasive species in the Lakes region is estimated at some $200 million a year.
“Invasive species have wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes. ... (They) out-compete native species and destroy habitat. They also cost people in Great Lakes communities hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Unfortunately, the shipping industry has convinced some senators to try to roll back the rules," the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes said in a statement today.
In February, a group of state attorneys general, including Michigan's Bill Schuette, signed a letter to Senate leaders opposing the proposal, saying that any preemption of state authority to set rules, "represent(s) a risky, and likely very costly, step backward."
The Lake Carriers Association and other supporters have argued that while keeping in place the current federal standard, it still calls on the Coast Guard to require the "best technology economically achievable" to treat or otherwise handle ballast water discharges.
The measure also mandates that the Coast Guard maintain a requirement that ocean-going vessels entering the Great Lakes dump ballast water at least 200 miles before entering the St. Lawrence Seaway, unless and until it determines a more certain way of treating ballast water for discharges.
That requirement greatly lessens the likelihood that invasive species carried in the ballast water from foreign territories are dumped into the Lakes. Ballast water is taken in and discharged by vessels to improve their stability in different environments.
"We are pleased that the Senate Commerce Committee recognizes both the need to replace the current patchwork of conflicting ballast water regulations with a more uniform system and the need to protect the Great Lakes from the introduction of new invasive species from oceangoing vessels," said James H.I. Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association. "We encourage the Congress to continue its work."
The measure — which enjoys some bipartisan support — has been proposed in years past as well, getting approved in the U.S. House before running into hurdles in the Senate, especially from former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, who retired in January. That makes passage by the Commerce Committee this year a key step for its supporters toward it eventually being signed into law.
"The question is do we have a national standard or do we allow each state to have its own standard," said Nelson, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee and a supporter of the measure, which would also potentially ease requirements on "incidental" discharges such as rainwater and gasoline and exclude altogether fishing boats and vessels under 79 feet in length.
"What I'm finding when I talk to vessel operators around the country is that in many respects some states have requirements which are not achievable under the science that we have today," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. "It becomes a paperwork problem that doesn't make the water any better."
Environmentalists say by removing Clean Water Act regulation of ballast water discharges and putting in place stricter standards on how and when the federal government revisits standards — a review wouldn't take place until 2022 — as well as setting rules that would create exceptions for vessels operating solely in "geographically limited areas," it could result in regulatory loopholes that would allow invasive species to slip through.
Several Democratic members of the committee, including Peters of Michigan, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and others, voiced their objections to the measure, asking to be recorded as against it even though no roll call was taken.
"This is a very serious issue for us," said Peters. "Currently as the bill is written, (it) does not protect our waters from further incursion from non-native species."
"I want to support the Coast Guard bill but I cannot in its current form with the inclusion of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act," said Baldwin. "I'm disappointed it was added to an otherwise non-controversial, bipartisan bill at the last minute."