The US EPA has proposed a Vessel General Permit to address ballast water discharges, a significant source of invasive species in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and other conservation organizations filed formal comments last week criticizing the EPA’s proposal as inadequate to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species in the region. Executive Director Nick Schroeck provides some insight on the issue in this guest post (with special thanks to Wayne Law’s Transnational Environmental Law Clinic student Nisha Dalal for her work on this project).
Ballast water is a major vector for the introduction and spread of non-native species into aquatic ecosystems. Aquatic invasive species are non-native fish, aquatic animals, smaller organisms, viruses, and plants that threaten the ecological integrity and economic future of the Great Lakes Region. Aquatic invasive species have arrived in the Great Lakes from the ballast tanks of ocean going vessels. Current discharge requirements under the Clean Water Act’s section 402 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits are simply not protective enough.
To help combat the problem, the EPA is proposing changes to the 2008 Vessel General Permit (VGP). EPA is organizing these rule changes into three sections: (1) ballast water requirements; (2) incidental discharge effluent requirements; and (3) administrative requirements. EPA is proposing numeric standards to control the release of non-indigenous invasive species in ballast water discharges. The numeric standard is consistent with the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) 2004 Ballast Water Convention. The numeric concentration-based treatment limits for ballast water discharges would not apply to “lakers,” ships built before 2009 that operate exclusively in the Great Lakes. EPA has proposed a staggered implementation schedule for certain existing vessels to meet the numeric limitation by their first drydocking. Practically speaking, this means that most vessels will be allowed an additional three to five year period before compliance with ballast water discharge standards.
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center submitted comments on the proposed revisions to the VGP. There are several areas that need to be strengthened to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species.
To prevent the introduction and spread of aquatic invasive species, stronger treatment standards are required. The proposed numerical IMO standards are step in the right direction, but they do not shut the door on invasive species. Our comment letter discusses how states like California and New York have implemented standards much more stringent than the IMO. For example, New York’s water quality certification for a state discharge permit is 100 times more restrictive than the IMO standards. California has also set discharge standards much more restrictive than the IMO.
Moreover, numeric ballast water treatment limits should be applicable to existing “lakers” vessels. Although these vessels do not directly introduce aquatic invasive species into the Great Lakes system, they continuously move large volumes of ballast water between ports within the Great Lakes. Further research is necessary in order to establish the best management practices for Lakers built before 2009. The interim measures, i.e. ballast water exchange and saltwater flushing, should be continued indefinitely.
Finally, the draft VGP allows vessels an additional three to five year period before compliance with IMO ballast water discharge standards. This timeline is based on the assumption that any shipboard ballast water management system would have to be installed during the vessel’s scheduled drydocking. Some treatment technologies may be installed without drydocking and EPA should not allow further delay the implementation timeline.