Update: House of Representatives approves bill allowing more invasive species in Great Lakes

Zebra and quagga mussels imported to the Great Lakes by ocean freighters are wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 4 approved legislation that would leave the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters vulnerable to invasive species that live in ocean freighters’ ballast water tanks.

The House approved H.R. 2838, the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2011. The resolution includes the text of another bill, the Commercial Vessel Discharges Reform Act of 2011.

In addition to reauthorizing the U.S. Coast Guard, HR 2838  eliminates many of the tools used by federal and state officials to control the introduction of aquatic invasive species from ships’ ballast water.

If approved by the Senate and President Obama, the legislation would jeopardize the health of America’s aquatic ecosystems, exacerbate the spread of invasive species, undermine recreational and commercial fishing interests and threaten regional economies that depend on healthy waterways.

NWF and other conservation groups worked with members of the House to remove the harmful provisions from the legislation, but that effort was defeated by a vote of 237-161.

The legislation now moves to the Senate.

For more background on the issue, and how you can get involved, please read this blog post from last week:

Nov. 4 blog post:

Three decades ago, scientists warned federal officials in the U.S. and Canada that ocean freighters entering the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway were carrying zebra mussels and dozens of other invasive species in their ballast water tanks.

Federal officials ignored those warnings. Seven years later, in 1988, scientists found zebra mussels in Lake St. Clair, near Detroit.

The rest, as they say, is history: Zebra and Quagga mussels spread rapidlythroughout the Great Lakes, into the Mississippi River system and across North America. (Watch how it unfolded here) These destructive invaders are now found in 23 states and two Canadian provinces, where they disrupt ecosystems and force communities to spend millions of dollars annually to combat the menacing mollusks.

Flash forward to 2011 and you confront a bad case of déjà vu.

Congress is currently considering legislation that would gut proposed ballast water treatment standards for transoceanic freighters entering U.S. waters. (The House of Representatives may vote on this bill as soon as Friday, Nov. 4). The ballast treatment standards are supposed to prevent ocean freighters from importing more foreign species to the Great Lakes and other U.S. ports.

Instead the legislation — contained in House Resolution 2838 and known as Title VII, the “Commercial Vessel Discharges Reform Act of 2011 — would protect the shipping industry at the expense of the Great Lakes and America’s other coastal waters. It would:

—  Adopt international ballast treatment standards that are weak and would allow more invasive species to reach the Great Lakes via ballast water tanks.

—  Delay the implementation of ballast treatment standards for as long as 10 years.

—  Prevent state and federal agencies from setting tougher treatment standards even if officials document fatal flaws in the international regulations.

—  Prevent citizens from enforcing the law. Citizen lawsuits are one of the hallmark provisions in America’s most successful environmental statutes.

—  Derail progress on setting a strong national policy to stop invasive species from entering the Great Lakes via ships’ ballast water discharges.

Bottom line: This legislation would allow ocean freighters to carry more invasive species into the Great Lakes.

This is no small matter. Since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, the ocean freighters it invited into the Great Lakes have imported 58 invasive species, including many of the worst invaders.

Those invaders now cause between $200 million and $400 million in environmental and economic damage annually. Just a few of these foreign species have plunged the Great Lakes into biological chaos.

Congressional approval of the Commercial Vessel Discharges Reform Act of 2011 would exacerbate the problem.

Is this any way to treat the Great Lakes, the world’s largest source of surface freshwater, the source of drinking water for 30 million people and the foundation of one of the world’s largest regional economies? Of course not.

Call or e-mail your representatives in Congress now and demand they protect the Great Lakes from new ship-borne invasive species. Remind them that the government’s mandate to protect public health and the environment supersedes the financial interests of the shipping industry.