Don’t Let Weakened Ballast Water Protections Stow Away in Coast Guard Bill

The bi-national 2017 State of the Great Lakes report analyzes nine factors affecting the Great Lakes to gauge their overall health. Eight of the analyzed categories were either improved or unchanging. The only factor listed as “Poor and Deteriorating” was the spread of aquatic invasive species within the Great Lakes system. The silver lining is that the introduction of new invasive species has started to taper off in recent years thanks to ballast water regulations, but invasive species are often present for years before they’re first detected. And yet, Congress is considering weakening the very regulations which keep new invasive species out and preempting stronger protections in the future.

In May, the Senate Commerce Committee inserted a bill called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) into a place it doesn’t belong – S. 1129, the Coast Guard Authorization Act – hoping it can hitch a ride just like aquatic invasive species do in ballast tanks. Ships use ballast water to provide stability and balance in transit. When they draw in water, invasive species can be drawn into holding tanks, and when they discharge the water (for instance, when picking up cargo), those invasive species are also discharged into the new water – like the Great Lakes.

VIDA strips ballast water discharges from Environmental Protection Agency oversight under the Clean Water Act, instead transferring that authority to the Coast Guard and preventing states from adopting stronger protections. This is not the first time that language similar to VIDA has been inserted into unrelated must-pass legislation: last year they tried to sneak it in the Defense Authorization Act. The Senate wisely removed it, as they should do now.

Marc Smith, Great Lakes regional policy director for the Nation Wildlife Federation:

This bill threatens our Great Lakes, undermines our economy, and needs to be killed. The people, businesses and communities that have borne the brunt of damages wrought by invasive species like zebra mussels deserve solutions—not removing Clean Water Act protections that can help us shut the door on future invaders. This bill has no place in the Coast Guard bill—or any bill. The U.S. Senate needs to stand firm and reject these Clean Water Act roll-backs once and for all.

If you’ve every sliced up your feet on zebra mussels on the beach, you’ve seen just a fraction of the impact these species have. The 2017 State of the Great Lakes report described that an important food source for Great Lakes fish – diporeia, a small shrimp-like species – has severely declined in every Great Lake except Lake Superior, due to the spread of zebra and quagga mussels. The Great Lakes simply can’t afford the new aquatic invasive species that could be let in by a let-off on ballast water protections; the ones we have cost us too much already.

A recent U.S. Department of the Interior report on actions to halt the spread of the mussels in the western United States states:

Nationwide, invasive species represent one of the most significant threats to ecosystems, human and animal health, infrastructure, the economy, and cultural resources. Invasive quagga and zebra mussels are a clear case in point. Unintentionally introduced into the Great Lakes through ballast water in the 1980s, the mussels proved highly invasive by clogging water supply pipes and dramatically changing the local environment. Invasive mussels subsequently have spread outward from the Great Lakes, often moved on the hulls and in the bilges of recreational boats

Why would the Senate consider weakening the ballast water protections that keep new aquatic invasive species out when the ones we already have are costing us half a billion dollars per year? When you’re in a hole, stop digging. The Senate should remove the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act from Coast Guard authorization, keep ballast water protections in the Clean Water Act and allow individual states – our “laboratories of democracy,” the freedom to develop strong and innovative protections against the ballast water invaders which enter the Great Lakes and spread across the country.