Bill would strip EPA authority over ballast water pollution
Environmental groups are crying foul over federal legislation that benefits the shipping industry but which they say would weaken protections against invasive species entering the Great Lakes through ballast water discharges. On Thursday, May 18, the U.S. Senate commerce committee passed a Coast Guard reauthorization bill with provisions that would transfer authority over ballast water from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Coast Guard. The bill passed on a bipartisan voice vote, although several Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, withheld support over changes to ballast water regulation, saying that the bill as written “does not protect our waters from further incursions from non-native species.”
The shipping industry has advocated the transfer for several years, arguing for uniform nationwide discharge pollution rules that would end overlapping state and federal regulations on ballast water, which ships carry in their hulls to provide stability. Because the water can transfer exotic species, bacteria and viruses around the globe, it is regulated as a form of pollution.
The shipping industry argues the Coast Guard is a more appropriate authority to regulate ballast water because the service already enforces discharge permit violations and certifies onboard ballast water systems.
“The status quo, two federal vessel discharge regulations enforced by two different agencies, plus, at latest count, 25 state regimes, is unworkable,” the Lake Carriers Association said in a 2016 report. Environmental groups counter that provisions in the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, (VIDA), weaken protections against invasive species like the quagga and zebra mussels, which entered the Great Lakes in ballast water. Versions of VIDA have died in committee or been removed from must-pass bills before. The VIDA provisions strip the authority of the Clean Water Act over ballast water discharges and prohibit states like Michigan, which requires saltwater ships calling at Michigan ports to obtain a discharge permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality, from passing their own ballast water rules.
Michigan presently has EPA-delegated authority to enforce Clean Water Act rules under a special federal program. The state requires ships disinfect ballast water before entering state waters. Michigan’s general permit expires this year. The Senate bill as written would allow the EPA and states to consult with the Coast Guard, which would issue ballast water discharge permits, conduct enforcement and review proposals from states for more stringent future standards, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Coast Guard would have to decide by 2022 whether revising ballast water standards “will result in reducing the risk of introducing or establishing aquatic nuisance species,” according to the bill text, and any standards should be developed by “applying the best available technology that is economically achievable.”
The National Wildlife Federation says the VIDA provisions would “enshrine a regulatory scheme that places the economic burden associated with invasive species on the nation’s taxpayers rather than on the international shipping industry that is responsible for bringing those species to our nation’s waters.”
In 2015, the NWF and National Resources Defense Council won a federal appellate decision that forced the EPA to rewrite its general ballast water permit by 2018 to strengthen pollution controls. The NWF and NRDC say mid-ocean ballast water flushing and new onboard treatment systems are insufficient protections.
Oceangoing ships are currently required to exchange, or flush, ballast water at sea before entering the St. Lawrence Seaway. The practice, known as “swish and spit,” has largely been credited with stemming invasions, although in 2016 the EPA confirmed a new exotic species of zooplankton was present in Lake Erie. Committee chair Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, included the VIDA provisions in the Coast Guard bill prior to Thursday’s meeting, saying the changes would “ensure that our nation’s fishermen and vessel owners have one consistent and attainable standard for ballast water and vessel discharge.”
Thune said its time to get VIDA “across the finish line.”
“We’ve tried multiple times now.”
Peters and other Democrats objected to the VIDA provisions in the bill, asking to be recorded as “no” votes and expressing hope the language could be removed from an otherwise non-controversial must-pass bill on the full chamber floor.
“I’m disappointed (VIDA) was added to an otherwise non-controversial and bipartisan bill at the last minute and without consultation with all members of the committee,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, who called the bill a “step backwards in the fight against invasive species that could cause serious harm to state and local economies that rely on the Great Lakes.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, said “the Coast Guard’s mission is our nation’s maritime safety and security. I believe they should focus on that and leave water management requirements to the EPA, who have more of a scientific-based approach.”
Bill sponsor Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said ship owners have complained to him that some states have discharge standards that are “not achievable.”
“We could continue to work with EPA as a scientific advisor,” he said. Peters and Baldwin withheld support although the reauthorization bill, which funds the Coast Guard for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, included their amendment to authorize funding to begin initial design work on new a Great Lakes icebreaker, as well as a Peters amendment to create a Coast Guard Center of Expertise in the Great Lakes focused on studying the impacts of freshwater oil spills.
Peters entered a letter written by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on the record, which expresses opposition to the VIDA provisions.
“Michigan is taking action to address all potential pathways through which aquatic invasive species can enter our waters and currently has significant state resources dedicated annually to invasive species prevention, detection and management,” Snyder wrote.
“I urge you to continue to work to ensure the complementary benefits of regulatory certainty and environmental protection are met.”
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, ranking Democrat on the committee who supported the VIDA provisions in subcommittee, said “the question is, do we have a national standard or do we allow each state to have its own standard?”
“There are pluses and minuses on both sides of the issue, and we are going to attempt to work this out.”