The battle over ballast waters

July 11, 2011

By Brian Mann

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(Flickr/Neil Smith)

Let’s say you’re the captain of a ship tied up at one of dozens of ports along the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Great Lakes.  You’re taking on a cargo of iron ore or corn or salt.  As you fill your hold, you keep your ship level by pumping water out of your ballast tanks. The trouble is that all of that ballast water could have been collected just about anywhere on the planet. 

James Tierney is assistant commissioner for water quality for New York state’s Conservation Department and an expert on ballast water pollution, he says,  “Ballast water may be sucked out of a port in the Black Sea, or Singapore, or Amsterdam.  And then it’s brought over and it’s released.  So ballast water has been a very effective mechanism to bring in all sorts of invasive species.”

Tierney says tiny creatures literally hide in the scum and saltwater stored inside these ships. Once they're dumped here in the Seaway they are free to spread.  And that’s exactly what they’ve done, turning up in waterways from Quebec in the east to Minnesota in the west. 

Jennifer Caddick heads a green group called Save the River.  On a brilliant summer day she takes me to a narrow stretch of the St. Lawrence Seaway near Clayton New York, not far from Lake Ontario. “Things like the zebra mussel, round goby, spiny waterfleas, quagga mussels, all of those things have come in through ship ballast tanks,” she says.

It looks like a healthy stretch of river.  But Caddick says just two of those alien invaders – the zebra mussel and the quagga mussel – have spread so rapidly and grown so densely that they are altering the entire food chain of the Great Lakes.  They're changing the chemistry in the water, and triggering nasty algae blooms. “We’re seeing massive outbreaks of this cladophora algae, which along with it harbors bacteria.  And when cladophora algae dies and washes up on shore, it smells like sewage,” she says.

In the Great Lakes, invasive species have climbed to the top of the list of environmental threats, right up there with climate change. Jeff Alexander – an environmental activist and writer based in Ann Arbor Michigan – believes the opening of the Seaway triggered a kind of slow-moving ecological disaster, far more devastating than the Gulf oil spill. “ You know an oil spill can be cleaned up to some extent, while invasive species, the problem just continues to grow and spread,” he says.

Alexander published a book last year called "Pandora’s Locks."  He argues that invasive organisms sneaking in through the Seaway could leave the Great Lakes unrecognizable, shredding the natural network of plants and animals that evolved over thousands of years. “The truth is that nobody knows how this story is going to play out.  The scientists can’t do research fast enough to keep up with the changes.  And no one can tell you what the lakes will look like in 5, 10 or 25 years,” says Alexander.

That danger has sparked an ugly international feud over just what kind of ballast water regulations are needed to keep new invaders out. Last year, New York state approved strict new regulations that could eventually force each cargo ship entering the Seaway to have its own miniature waste water treatment plant right on board. 

James Tierney with New York’s Conservation Department says that’s the only way to be sure nothing nasty gets through, “You have to put equipment on your ship that kills animals, bacteria, viruses, crustaceans that might be carried in ballast water.”

 New York’s regulation sets a standard for clean ballast water a hundred times more restrictive than current international rules – a fact that thrills environmentalists. The state planned to put the rules into effect next year, but under intense pressure Tierney delayed the deadline for compliance to August of 2013.

Canadian officials want the stricter standards scrapped entirely, arguing that the cost of buying and installing new equipment is too high.  Last year, Canada’s government asked the US State Department to intervene, arguing that New York’s standards could “have the effect of shutting down access to the St. Lawrence Seaway."

Speaking in Montreal last month, Canadian environment minister Peter Kent warned that states and provinces shouldn't get too far in front of international standards.  “We just have to make sure that as time goes on we have to stay closely aligned so that we’re in step and complimentary,” he said.

Canadians are angry, in part, because much of the Seaway lies in their territory and links their ports.  But even ships moving between Canadian harbors that pass through New York waters would have to meet the new standards. Bob Dalley runs the Canadian port in Prescott, Ontario.  He says none of the ships that dock here could comply, “That would be a huge issue for all vessels coming in and using the St. Lawrence.  But yeah, that would definitely have a impact.”

Some US officials agree that New York state has gone too far.  Collister Johnson heads the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the agency that operates the US portion of the shipping route and says, “There is no other jurisdiction in the world.  I’m talking not about states and provinces, but countries…that is proposing a set of ballast water regulations like the state of New York.”

Johnson says the current rules, introduced three years ago, are adequate.  Those require ships to dump any water picked up in foreign ports while on the high seas.  Vessels take on cleaner saltwater before entering North American harbors.  If the Seaway is held to a higher standard, Johnson says, the cost of new equipment and technology will force shipping companies to take their cargoes to other ports on the East Coast, “ It is a great concern to the Seaway because it would shut down the Seaway.  And it’s a great concern to Canada because it is impacting their sovereignty.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard plan to propose their own updated ballast water rules this November.  Lisa Jackson, who heads the EPA, says some kind of new accord is needed to end the confusion, “Right now we sort of have the worst of all worlds.  We have individual states doing standards.  We have shippers who I guess in some reality could have to meet the most stringent.  But that situation is evolving.”

All sides say New York state will face enormous pressure to change its regulations to match the Federal standards -- even if they're less stringent. As negotiations and backroom talks continue, scientists say new invasive plants and animals are still arriving in the Great Lakes every year, many of them shipped in through the Seaway.