WASHINGTON – Legislation aimed at preventing foreign fish, clams and marine creatures from entering the Great Lakes (search) in oceangoing ships is languishing in Congress while the shipping industry pushes a less restrictive bill.
Environmentalists and Great Lakes officials want legislation that would keep invasive species from making the trip in ships' ballast water, which is used to balance the vessels.
The Coast Guard requires ships entering U.S. waters to first exchange any fresh water ballast for salt water in the ocean, in an effort to cut down on foreign organisms that can survive in the Great Lakes. Fresh-water organisms generally have a harder time surviving in salt water, and the reverse is also true.
But questions remain about the effectiveness of this approach.
The issue is of paramount concern in the Great Lakes region, the world's largest above-ground fresh-water system. Invasive species like zebra mussels (search) are already wreaking havoc on the region's ecosystem by decimating the base of the lakes' food chain.
Adding to the problem is that 80 percent of ships entering the Great Lakes do not carry ballast because they are carrying so much cargo they don't need the extra weight.
As a result, they are exempt from the exchange requirements. However, they may still be carrying residual water in their ballast tanks, and that water can harbor invasive species that can escape into the Great Lakes.
"U.S. waters remain vulnerable to species invasions because many ships are still not required to conduct ballast water exchange," said a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional investigative agency.
The National Aquatic Invasive Species Act would phase out ballast exchange by 2011, replacing it with technology that would kill invasive sealife.
"It may be the most important bill in Congress to protect the Great Lakes from ecological collapse," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center. "On average, once every eight months a new invasive species invades the Great Lakes. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen."
But the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (search), D-Mich., has not moved in Congress in three years. A rival bill, the Ballast Water Management Act, has made it through the Senate Commerce Committee with support from the international shipping industry.
That legislation, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye (search), D-Hawaii, gives the shipping industry more time to come up with technology to treat ballast water than Levin's bill.
Inouye's measure calls for standards 100 times more stringent than an agreement adopted last year by the United Nations International Maritime Organization. That pact has not yet adopted by member countries.
Inouye's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Before the Commerce Committee voted on the Inouye bill this year, attorneys general from six Great Lakes states wrote to panel chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, urging him not to move forward on the measure.
The officials, representing Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania, said the measure would remove the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate ballast water and pre-empt state laws.
Helen Brohl, executive director of the U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association, which supports Inouye's bill, argued that EPA was not in a position to regulate ships' ballast water.
"Our position is that while EPA has a role to play with regard to reviewing and scientific vetting of technology, it's the Coast Guard's experience and expertise to implement," she said.
Brohl, whose group represents agents that handle foreign ships in Great Lakes ports, also said it doesn't make sense to have individual state laws when implementing a federal standard.