Groups Call on EPA to End Harmful Shipping Practices

There are many reasons to hate the ‘80s: Big hair, bad music and acid-washed jeans.

The 1980s were also a notoriously bad decade for the Great Lakes.

That’s when ocean freighters that access the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway began importing zebra mussels, quagga mussels and other harmful invasive species to the lakes.

Zebra mussels revealed the danger of biologically unsafe shipping — allowing ocean freighters to discharge untreated ballast water teeming with aquatic life from around the world — in the Great Lakes.

Zebra and quagga mussels, just two of the 57 aquatic invasive species that ocean freighters imported to the Great Lakes, are now causing the most profound ecological changes in the recorded history of the lakes, according to experts. Those 57 species cost the region $200 million annually in damage and control costs.

The plague of ship-borne invasive species wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes and spreading across the continent has not elicited a bold response from the federal government.

It’s been 24 years since zebra mussels were discovered in the Great Lakes. But the federal government has yet to require ocean freighters to treat ballast water before dumping it in the lakes. This despite the fact that ballast water from oceangoing ships is the main source of aquatic invasive species in the lakes.

Following a federal court order, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed ballast water treatment standards for ships operating on all U.S. waters. Unfortunately, the regulations won’t close the door on ocean freighters importing new invasive species to the Great Lakes.

>> TAKE ACTION: Urge the EPA to Protect the Great Lakes

The National Wildlife Federation was one of several conservation groups that said the EPA’s proposed standards aren’t tough enough and wouldn’t be implemented quickly enough.  (Read their comments here)

Under the EPA’s timeline, the ballast water standards wouldn’t apply to all ships until 2021. That’s simply unacceptable.

NWF and the other conservation want the EPA to make the following improvements to the ballast discharge permit:

  • Adopt a zero-discharge standard for invasive species.
  • Adopt the most protective technology standards nationwide.
  • Develop standards for lakers, the ships that stay in the Great Lakes.
  • Develop a faster timeline to implement new technology standards.

Currently, the U.S. and Canada require ocean freighters destined for the Great Lakes to flush ballast tanks with seawater before entering the St. Lawrence Seaway. Those regulations were a start but they didn’t close the door on foreign species hitchhiking into the lakes.

The EPA’s proposed ballast water treatment regulations don’t go much further than the existing rules.

It’s dangerous to assume that existing ballast water regulations are adequate because no new ship-borne aquatic invasive species have been discovered in the Great Lakes since 2006. Consider:

  • There is no way of knowing whether current ballast water regulations are preventing introductions of invasive species because there are no programs that routinely monitor for new invaders in the Great Lakes. To say that existing ballast regulations are preventing new introductions of ship-borne invasive species is akin to giving a cancer patient a clean bill of health without conducting the post-treatment tests needed to determine if that person is actually cancer-free.
  • Due to a lack of comprehensive monitoring it’s likely that scientists aren’t detecting all aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes. Case in point: Scientists discovered in 1981 that ocean freighters were hauling millions of zebra mussel larvae into the lakes in ballast water tanks; the first colonies of zebra mussels weren’t discovered in the lakes until 1988.
  • The EPA recently identified 30 new aquatic invasive species that pose a moderate or high risk of entering the Great Lakes via ocean freighters and colonizing the lakes.

Until the EPA imposes strict ballast water treatment standards, ocean freighters will continue to practice biologically unsafe shipping in the Great Lakes.

This is one of those moments when government officials must be reminded of what’s at stake here.

The Great Lakes are more than the world’s largest source of surface freshwater and the backbone of one of the world’s largest regional economies. The Great Lakes are special; they deserve special protections.

Take Action

Take Action! Help protect Great Lakes wildlife from invasive species by editing and sending a message to the Environmental Protection Agency today.