2017-11-23 / News

State Lessens Ballast Water Standards To Increase Shipping Competitiveness

By Stephanie Fortino

Michigan legislators seek to relax environmental regulations on ballast water from oceangoing freighters and bring the state in line with federal standards with House Bill 5095. The bill was passed by the House and Senate November 2 and 9, respectively. Governor Rick Snyder is still negotiating with the Senate on the bill, Senator Wayne Schmidt told The St. Ignace News Friday, November 17, and negotiations will likely continue into early December. The governor has opposed earlier versions of the bill.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) opposes the bill because it removes 2005 state provisions to minimize and reduce the spread of aquatic nuisance species in the Great Lakes. Aquatic nuisance species are foreign organisms that threaten native species, ecosystems, or commercial, agricultural, aquaculture, or recreation activities. Many aquatic invasive species, such as zebra mussels, are believed to have been brought to the Great Lakes in the ballast water of oceangoing vessels.

The bill replaces the state’s existing regulations with the federal aquatic nuisance rule established by the United States Coast Guard in 2012. But the Coast Guard’s procedures aren’t in place yet, said DNR Aquatic Invasive Species Program Coordinator Sarah LeSage, raising concerns for environmental regulators.

The 2005 ballast water regulations went into effect in 2007 and were tougher than federal standards at the time, Ms. LeSage said. The DEQ began issuing permits for oceangoing vessels to use Michigan ports. Oceanic freighters have to agree not to discharge ballast water or treat ballast water before discharging. The DEQ permit is technology-based. There are four DEQ-approved ballast water treatment systems, including hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide, ultraviolet light radiation, and deoxygenating. Vessels can also use other treatment methods, she said.

The federal rule, instead, establishes standard for how clean ballast water has to be after treatment. Vessels can use whatever technology they want to treat the water for aquatic invasive species. Steve Fisher of the American Great Lakes Ports Association explained that all the oceangoing freighters in the world will be required to have ballast water treatment technologies in place by 2021. The port association, along with the Michigan Agribusiness Association, supports HB 5095, which was introduced by Representative Dan Lauwers of the 81st District in St. Clair County.

The DEQ is primarily concerned with this lag time between when the Michigan regulations would be removed and the federal rules go into effect, Ms. LeSage said. Currently, the Coast Guard only requires oceangoing vessels to do ballast water exchange or salt water flushing. Those methods reduce the number of organisms in the water, but aren’t as effective as the ballast water treatment methods currently required by Michigan, she said.

“Essentially, it would be a step backward for what’s required for Michigan waters,” Ms. LeSage told The St. Ignace News.

The DEQ has issued permits for marine vessels to use Michigan ports since 2007. She explained that nearly all of the ships that made port have agreed not to discharge ballast water while in port. It wasn’t until 2016 that the first permit for vessels with treatment systems was approved.

But supporters of the bill, including Sen. Schmidt, say removing the requirements will help the shipping industry in Michigan by encouraging exportation. Michigan’s tough regulations are also essentially ineffective, he continued, because the untreated ballast water is instead being dumped at nearby ports in other states or provinces.

Vessels take on ballast water for stability. If a vessel is fully loaded with cargo, it will take on ballast water as the cargo is offloaded, so the ship doesn’t tip, Mr. Fisher said. Ballast water intake is not regulated by the State of Michigan. Vessels discharge ballast water when picking up cargo.

While oceangoing vessels have made port in Michigan since the law was passed, the vessels haven’t been picking up Michigan cargo because they haven’t been discharging ballast water.

“No commerce is occurring,” Mr. Fisher said.

While Michigan was trying to be a leader in the Great Lakes by establishing tough ballast water regulations, Mr. Schmidt said the law wasn’t effective in achieving its goal of controlling aquatic invasives. During the last decade, oceangoing vessels have been stopping in Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario to pick up cargo rather than visiting Detroit or Muskegon. Michigan exports, especially from the agricultural industry, are being trucked to the other places like Toledo, Ohio, to be shipped overseas, Mr. Schmidt said. The added trucking cost makes Michigan exports more expensive and less competitive on the market, Mr. Fisher added.

“What have we gained?” Mr. Schmidt asked. “They’re still discharging that ballast water in Canada or other Great Lakes states.”

With more stringent regulations, Mr. Fisher said, Michigan has been hurting its own business opportunities.

“That’s why we’ve all been arguing that the law has been disadvantageous to Michigan business,” he said. “You can’t protect the great lakes just from one place.”

Another part of the law to be removed is the 2005 requirement for the DEQ to develop Great Lakes Basin-wide standards for aquatic nuisance species control. The law had required the DEQ to work with other states and provinces in the Great Lakes Region, the panel on aquatic nuisance species, fishery commission, the international joint commission, and the Great Lakes commission.

While the DEQ has been working to achieve this goal, establishing basin-wide standards has been difficult, Ms. LeSage said, because each state and province has different priorities when controlling aquatic invasive species. Minnesota and Wisconsin both have permitting programs for freighters in the Great Lakes, and Wisconsin even has an inspection program, she said. Some states are more concerned with invasive species from the Detroit area being transported elsewhere in the Great Lake Basin, rather than invasives from overseas.

While HB 5095 would delete the requirement to form Great Lakes Basin-wide standards, Ms. LeSage said the DEQ will keeping collaborating with other states and provinces.

“Michigan certainly supports and advocates for protective basin-wide international ballast water discharge standards,” she said, “and I think that we’re moving toward that.”

Supporters of HB 5095 say moving toward more comprehensive standards is the ultimate goal.

“What our goal is, the House Bill puts Michigan into alignment with all of the other states and provinces by adopting the U.S. Coast Guard standards,” Sen. Schmidt said.

Protecting the Great Lakes from aquatic invasive species should be a priority for lawmakers, he said, noting that he’d like Michigan to have a say in how Michigan waters are protected.

“I still believe we should be environmental leaders,” he continued, “but putting a standard out there nobody else is following 12 years later, it’s time to do something different.”

Since the first zebra mussels were found near Lake St. Clair in 1988, the American Great Lakes Ports Association has been working on the federal and international levels to combat invasive species, Mr. Fisher said. The group supports requiring vessels to have advanced ballast water treatment systems, but doesn’t support one state like Michigan having its own unique standards.

“We, of course, don’t want invasive species in the Great Lakes,” Mr. Fisher said. “We want a solution that’s comprehensive and works.”

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