Ships that enter the Great Lakes and dump millions of gallons of ocean water each year will soon need on-board water treatment systems designed to kill foreign organisms that cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage as they spread.
The state Department of Natural Resources expects to begin enforcing the new requirements in the state’s ports some time this year, as soon as the U.S. Coast Guard and International Maritime Organization complete final technical and legal details that will allow state and federal regulations to take effect.
Shipping interest groups complain that on-board water treatment is too costly, but conservation advocates have been waiting for years for the systems to be installed.
The Great Lakes basin has been damaged by more than 180 non-native species such as the zebra mussel, round goby, sea lamprey and Eurasian milfoil that disrupt aquatic ecosystems, threaten to eliminate desirable native species, cause human health hazards, and harm tourism, fishing and farming industries.
The spiny water flea, for example, arrived in the Great Lakes in the 1980s and moved inland in the early 2000s, spreading so far to 18 lakes, streams, bays and canals. It undermines water quality and fishing by eating zooplankton, which provides food for juvenile fish and consumes algae that clouds lakes. There is no known way to eliminate the invader.
“Historically, ballast water was a huge pathway for many of these,” said Bob Wakeman, the DNR’s aquatic invasive species program coordinator.
Ships have ballast tanks — narrow cavities built into their hulls — to make them more stable when they are carrying little or no cargo. Without cargo, a vessel rides higher in the water and is more likely to capsize in waves and wind. Ocean or lake water is pumped into the cavities to make a ship heavier and give it a lower center of gravity. When the vessel reaches a port and takes on cargo, it discharges the ballast water and whatever organisms it carries.
On-board freshwater treatment systems may use filters and chemicals like chlorine to eliminate animal and plant life before the water is dumped.
The shipping industry has been fighting against treatment regulations for more than a decade, saying that it is too costly and that involvement by states could create a confusing patchwork of regulations.
When the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 there wasn’t great awareness about invasive species.
The Natural Resources Defense Council went to court to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate dumping of ballast, said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for NRDC in Washington.
Starting in 2006, ships expecting to enter U.S. or Canadian territory were required to exchange ballastin the ocean far from shore, Slesinger said. The ships dump ballast taken on in freshwater or near ocean shorelines where aquatic life is plentiful, and take on ballast less likely to harbor anything that could thrive in freshwater.
Since then, no new invasive species have been found in the Great Lakes, but the mid-ocean exchange was always considered a stopgap until on-board treatment could be instituted, Slesinger said.
A better option would be a requirement that ballast water be piped on-shore for more extensive treatment than the water can receive on a ship, Slesinger said.
A potential roadblock to on-board treatment stands in the form of a proposed law that was added to a pending military budget authorization by U.S. Rep. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican.
The proposal, which Rubio previously placed in a tax bill, and which has been defeated in previous years, would prevent the water treatment rules from taking effect and repeal all regulation of ballast water, including the mid-ocean exchange requirement.
The House of Representatives passed the bill Wednesday. Next it goes to the U.S. Senate, and conservation groups are mobilizing to prevent passage there.
Last year 60 industry groups — including the Cruise Lines International Association and the American Great Lakes Ports Association — signed a letter supporting Rubio’s efforts to prevent on-board treatment.
But at least one shipping line that runs ocean-going vessels in and out of the Great Lakes is already installing systems.
“The lakes are delicate and fragile environments, and we feel a responsibility to be protective of them,” said Marc Gagnon, a spokesman for Montreal-based Fednav. The company operates a fleet of 75 cargo vessels, including 35 that it considers its core business of moving cargo between Great Lakes and international ports.
A ballast water treatment system on the Federal Biscay is being tested in the Superior harbor, Gagnon said. The company is expecting delivery of four more similar vessels from a Japanese manufacturer in the next few months.
Treatment equipment adds about $500,000 to the cost of a new ship.
It costs twice as much to retrofit a ship with the equipment, Gagnon said.
When the new regulations take effect, ships will be required to add treatment systems when they are in dry dock for maintenance, which is about every five to seven years, said Susan Sylvester, who directs the Wisconsin DNR water quality bureau.
Sylvester was in Superior recently for a demonstration on the Federal Biscay with agency inspectors from the Superior, Milwaukee and Green Bay ports.
“I’m telling you, it’s been a long time coming,” Sylvester said.
Because of strong public concerns about invasive species, DNR regulations approved in 2010 included a standard 100 times stricter than the International Maritime Organization limit for organisms in ballast discharged into the Great Lakes.
After further study, questions about practical problems in enforcing the standard prompted a change in 2015 to the IMO standard, Sylvester said.
She isn’t reassured by the 10 years that have passed since a new invader has been found in the Great Lakes.
Mid-ocean exchange of ballast water has helped but it doesn’t provide certainty, Sylvester said. There may be additional invasive species in Lake Superior or Lake Michigan that just haven’t reproduced in great enough numbers to have been found, she said.
“There’s always a new species out there ready to come in,” Sylvester said.
Wakeman, the aquatic invasive species program coordinator, said Wisconsin residents can help slow the spread of aquatic invasive species by following rules posted at many boat landings and on the DNR website aimed at preventing transportation of vegetation or live fish or other organisms from one water body to another.