Senate bill would strip protections against zebra mussels, other Great Lakes invaders

The Buffalo News

April 18–WASHINGTON — Aquatic invaders would stand a far greater chance to find new homes in the Great Lakes under legislation the Senate is scheduled to consider Wednesday, environmentalists warned as the shipping industry continued to press for the bill’s repeal of regulations that shippers see as burdensome.

An otherwise routine bill reauthorizing funding for the Coast Guard includes a controversial measure that would stop the Environmental Protection Agency and the states from regulating the ballast water that ships carry to keep balanced — and that often provides invasive species with a free ride to their new homes.

Environmentalists said the bill, which appears to be on its way to passage in both houses of Congress, would destroy the bulwark of protections that legislatures and courts have built up over the years in hopes of preventing more foreign species like the ecology-damaging zebra mussel from invading the Great Lakes and other waterways.

“Non-native aquatic species have already ravaged San Francisco Bay, the Great Lakes and other rivers and estuaries,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which aims to protect species in their native environments. “This legislation will make the problem exponentially worse. This is a gift to industry and an insult to taxpayers.”

The American Waterways Operators, a trade group that represents the shipping industry, sees things very differently.

“Today, this vital industry is burdened by a dysfunctional regulatory system that only Congress can fix,” Thomas A. Allegretti, president and CEO of the shipping group, wrote in a recent Washington Times opinion piece. “Commercial vessels operating in U.S. waters are subject to a maze of some 150 regulations, imposed by two federal agencies and 25 states, governing ballast water and other discharges incidental to normal vessel operations. Each time a vessel crosses state lines, a new set of requirements may apply.”

At issue is the Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, a measure the shipping industry has been pushing for years and that a Senate committee added to the larger Coast Guard measure last year.

The bill would end the Environmental Protection Act’s ability to regulate discharges of ballast water under the Clean Water Act. In addition, it would end the states’ ability to impose tougher ballast water standards of their own.

Instead, it would leave ballast water discharges regulated under a looser Coast Guard standard. And state officials in the Great Lakes region and beyond are not very happy about it.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman last year led an effort by 10 attorneys general nationwide to press Senate leaders to reject the bill.

“This legislation would undercut the independence of states in fighting harmful biological pollution from commercial shipping, which causes serious damage to our environment and our economy in New York,” Schneiderman said at the time.

House votes to weaken federal crackdown on invasive species

Supporters of the bill say, though, that the bill will protect both the nation’s waterways and its shipping industry.

The measure’s chief sponsor, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said the bill sets “a high environmental standard while giving vessel owners across the country the certainty they need to invest in ballast water treatment.”

Given that the measure makes matters easier for shippers in states that have inland waterways but little fear of invasive species, it has won some bipartisan support. For that reason, environmentalists fear that the Coast Guard bill that includes the measure might well pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for passage and then quickly pass the House.

New York’s two Democratic senators are opposed to the measure, though.

“New Yorkers know too well that we can never take our clean water for granted, and this legislation is a direct threat to that,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand. “I will do everything I can in the Senate to oppose it, and I urge all New Yorkers who care about our keeping our water safe to raise their voices and join me in this fight.”

But the Lake Carriers Association, which represents shipping interests on the Great Lakes, offered high praise for the Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, otherwise known as VIDA.

“VIDA is highly protective of the Great Lakes,” the Great Lakes shippers said in a statement earlier this yeare. “VIDA is comprehensive. VIDA is inclusive of all regulatory parties. VIDA is critical to the operations of the U.S.-flag laker fleet. Lake Carriers’ Association emphatically endorses its passage and implementation as quickly as possible.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.