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New federal regulatory framework is proposed to control unwanted travelers found in ballast water of ships plying the Great Lakes

Great Lakes freighter on the water with a kayaker looking on As part of Aquatic Invasive Species Awareness Week, MI Environment is highlighting the issue this week. Today's story by EGLE staffer Sarah LeSage is from the recently released State of the Great Lakes report.

Zebra mussels have forever changed the Great Lakes by causing serious ecological and economic harm. They are native to the Caspian Sea in Eastern Europe and were discovered in Lake St. Clair in 1988, having arrived in ballast water that was discharged from an oceangoing ship.

Ballast water has been the primary pathway for non-native aquatic species to become established in the Great Lakes basin as global trade connects the Great Lakes to ports across the world. The zebra mussel invasion of the Great Lakes played a central role in prompting passage of federal legislation in 1990.

The Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act (NANPCA) was established to prevent the introduction of all new aquatic invasive species and to limit the spread of aquatic invasive species already in U.S. waters. Among other important objectives, the NANPCA also initiated ballast water regulation. Regulating ballast water -- which ships take onboard to control or maintain trim, draught, stability or stresses of the vessel during a voyage -- is complicated, evolving and influenced by economic growth and global trade, as well as by the irreversible harm that can be caused by aquatic invasive species.

Since the pivotal NANPCA, ballast water regulation has changed substantially with advancements at international, national and state levels. In the absence of protective federal regulations, Michigan has since 2007 required oceangoing vessels to treat discharged ballast water to prevent the movement of aquatic invasive species. The vessels can use one of four treatment methods: hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide, ultraviolet radiation or deoxygenation. Vessels can also use an alternative treatment, but they have to prove its effectiveness to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

Michigan is not the only government body to pass ballast water regulations. The U.S. Coast Guard published rules, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) developed a permitting program and other Great Lakes states developed and implemented their own programs. In response to this complex regulatory framework, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018 was established. Also known as the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), it streamlines requirements for the commercial vessel community.

VIDA creates a new regulatory framework that:

  • Overhauls ballast water regulation in the United States.
  • Establishes a new part of the Clean Water Act.
  • Preempts state authority to have state-specific regulations.
  • Establishes the USEPA as the federal lead in establishing new standards for ballast water.
  • Establishes the U.S. Coast Guard as the federal lead on monitoring, inspection and standards enforcement.
  • Authorizes $50 million for a Great Lakes and Lake Champlain Invasive Species Program.

In accordance with VIDA, the USEPA released in October 2020 a proposed new standard on its VIDA website, which explains the proposed new standards. Michigan submitted numerous concerns about the failure of the proposed standards to protect water quality and prevent the introduction of aquatic invasive species and their spread within the Great Lakes. In addition, a formal objection to the proposed standard was submitted in December 2020 by Governor Whitmer. The USEPA is evaluating the comments prior to finalizing the standards.

More than 30 years have passed since the initial zebra mussel invasion and discovery. They have quickly colonized all the Great Lakes, spread to many inland lakes in the region and continue to spread to the western U.S. and Canada by recreational vessels. New aquatic invasive species which can be spread from nearby waters or from across the world continue to threaten the Great Lakes. While advancements have been made to mitigate some of the risks of introducing aquatic invasive species via ballast from oceangoing vessels, there is more work to be done. It's critical to remain engaged on ballast water regulation and make investments in treatment technology to protect the unique Great Lakes ecosystem and the people and businesses that rely on them.

Photo caption: Great Lakes freighter on the water with a kayaker looking on. 

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