Great Lakes enviro battle over invasive species is heating up

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Ballast water — the water that large ships take on to stabilize themselves when they’re running without cargo aboard — is a hot topic in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C., these days. Ballast water containing organisms taken on in one distant location and discharged in local waters is credited for bringing at least 30 aquatic invasive species to Lake Superior.

Demonstrating that ballast water is not just a Great Lakes issue, the infamous zebra mussel that was first discovered in Lake St. Claire in 1988 has spread as far as Lake Mead in Nevada. The zebra mussel has wiped out native species and caused significant damage to harbors, boats and even power plants. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates control efforts for the zebra mussel alone cost $5 billion annually.

Now, a new threat called viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) has local conservationists demanding ballast water regulation. VHS has caused massive fish kills and has been discovered in Lake Michigan and a few large inland lakes in Wisconsin and could decimate fisheries in Lake Superior and Minnesota.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy recently won a court ruling forcing the Minnesota Pollution Control Authority (MPCA) to take immediate action to prevent the spread of VHS. The MPCA was already in the process of developing a ballast water control policy but encountered resistance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which advocates for federally standardized regulations. Another group of Minnesota environmental organizations recently filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard for for failing to use the authority granted by Congress in 1990 to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species.

“The federal agencies have essentially partnered with the shipping industry and the port lobby for the last twenty years to delay, dither and deny any solution to the problem,” argues Conservation Minnesota communications director and noted Great Lakes author Dave Dempsey. “In this case, both the Coast Guard and the EPA are more or less in the pocket of the [shipping] industry.”

One person in Washington who hasn’t been swayed by the industry is Minnesota’s Rep. Jim Oberstar, who once famously told The Duluth News Tribune that shipping industry arguments that more research was needed on the issue before regulations should be enforced was “bullshit.” That was before Oberstar became chairman of the powerful House Transportation Committee.

Two weeks ago Oberstar was able to get ballast-water legislation attached to the Coast Guard Re-authorization Act. The measure passed in the House by a vote of 395-7. However, President Bush has vowed to veto the bill due to unrelated to the ballast provisions.