Ballast water bill could allow invasive species to enter Puget Sound

Invasive species from San Francisco Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country — would have an open door for entry into Puget Sound under a bill moving through Congress.

Vessel Incidental Discharge Act invasive species
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

You may have heard this line before. I posted the same warning last summer, when the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA, was attached to the “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act. (Water Ways, July 16). Opponents fought back and were able to strip VIDA from the bill before final passage.

Now, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and an anti-regulatory atmosphere in place, the bill’s passage seems more likely this time — to the detriment of Puget Sound, the Great Lakes and other waterways.

If VIDA passes, ships coming up the coast from California will be able to take on infested ballast water in San Francisco Bay and discharge it without treatment into Puget Sound. Invasive species that hitched a ride in the ballast water would have a chance to populate Puget Sound.

A similar scenario could play out in the Great Lakes, where lack of treatment years ago may have resulted in the invasion of zebra and quagga mussels, causing billions of dollars in damages. Check out the opinion column by the Green Bay Press-Gazette Editorial Board.

The legislation also would exempt small commercial vessels and fishing boats from federal discharge rules. That would allow these vessel owners to clean their hulls in open water wherever they want — even if the hulls were covered with invasive species, said Allen Pleus, who heads Washington state’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

VIDA opponents — including the governors of nine coastal and Great Lakes states — are trying to attach amendments to the bill to shore up protections for their states’ waters, Allen told me. But representatives of the shipping industry, who have been pushing hard to get the bill passed, appear to be in no mood for compromise.

The legislation, S. 168, was passed out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation without amendment two weeks ago. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, a member of the committee, was unable to stop it.

“Puget Sound restoration is a priority for me, and that’s why I voted ‘no’ on the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act in the Commerce Committee,” she said in a short email. “Strong protections to prevent pollution and halt the introduction of invasive species are two key priorities needed to keep Puget Sound healthy and productive. I will continue to work to protect clean water, healthy ecosystems and support our sustainable fishing and maritime economy.”

For years, the shipping industry has been frustrated by a multi-level regulatory system in which they must comply with “clean water” rules coming at them from the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and any number of states that have developed their own regulations. Who can blame the industry for being frustrated? Industry officials would like one national standard to follow.

In the furor over regulations, however, many people have forgotten that state and EPA rules were imposed only after the Coast Guard failed to protect the environment. VIDA would address the problem, but not by considering the serious concerns being faced in different parts of the country. The bill would place the Coast Guard in charge of a single national standard, stripping authority from the states and EPA.

While the Coast Guard requires ballast water to be treated or exchanged on ships crossing the ocean from other countries, there is no such requirement for ships moving along the coast if they don’t have treatment systems on board.

Coast Guard officials have many duties when it comes to ensuring the safety of ships, and invasive species are not among their priorities, noted Allen Pleus, whose program resides within the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Industry officials have told me that state concerns can be addressed by petitioning the Coast Guard for stricter rules in those geographic areas where they are needed. But that could take months or years with no assurance of approval. More importantly, there are no stop-gap measures to prevent ships from dumping infested ballast water into Puget Sound. Everyone knows that once an invasive species gets established, there is no going back.

This is a complicated issue, which I tried to explain step-by-step in last summer’s blog post, as well as in a detailed story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Changes are coming with new ballast-water-treatment systems being certified by the Coast Guard. The new treatment systems are technologically complicated, and trained operators are needed to make sure they kill a fair number of invasive organisms, as designed, Allen said. Without adequate funding, the Coast Guard will be in no position to make sure that invasive species aren’t transported from place to place, he said, adding, “States should be allowed to pick up the slack.”

There is another important difference between Washington state’s approach and that of the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard conducts inspections and checks paperwork only after a vessel has arrived in port. State rules require ship operators to send documentation prior to arrival, allowing time to address potential problems before it is too late.

A letter to U.S. senators (PDF 236 kb) from seven governors, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, expresses grave concern about the effects of VIDA on the waters of their states.

“The economic and regulatory issues faced by the shipping industry are of great interest to our states,” the letter says. “However, VIDA does not provide a reasonable balance between the economic benefits of the shipping industry and the significant environmental, economic, and human health costs states face from infested and polluted waters.”

Recent information compiled by VIDA opponents:

4 thoughts on “Ballast water bill could allow invasive species to enter Puget Sound

  1. Mr. Dunagun:
    Your informative article demands an answer to prevent our waters becoming of an unthinkable cesspool. With the change of legislature imbalance that has occurred, as well as the heavy strength of the lobbying on this issue, there seems an almost little hope. It is my opinion it would take a mammoth effort of many high profile organizations, well known national business (example, McDonalds, Starbucks), major newspapers to lead the cause. It truly is of great concern. Thank you for your heads up. Louis Soriano

  2. Great article – who holds the “strings” for this now…as in who should we be contacting to voice our opinion that this should not go through?

    1. Summer,

      Thank you for your response and question. The bill still must be approved by the full Senate as well as the House. Amendments could be approved to fill in the most dangerous gaps in protections, and the legislation could be blocked through a filibuster. One problem is that lawmakers in some inland states may not understand the serious problems posed by the bill.

      If you would like to contact Washington’s senators and representatives to voice your concerns, check out Washington congressional delegation.

  3. Perhaps if CNN, Fox News, C Span, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC, and the rest of broadcast news would report on the ballast water issue concerning economic globalization, the public would demand action because of the human health issues. Sadly they neglect this opportunity to save human life and the environment globally. The media instead complains about American energy development along with industrial development creating carbon that causes GLOBAL warming. Broadcast media neglects to mention that the displacement of American industrial development to third world countries with substandard environmental controls creates more GLOBAL carbon pollution along with more shipping related pollution. The increase in shipping activity releases more carbon and more ballast water containing virus and bacteria facilitating human death from pathogens such as cholera on a Global scale.
    President Trump talks about trade imbalance, while the majority of the ships in American waters are registered as foreign flag ships, to avoid paying tax, this helps facilitate cheap imports from countries he complains about as currency manipulators. His kids claim a love of fishing as invasive reek havoc on our waters. Go figure!
    Major environmental groups such as the NRDC did nor support legislation h.r. 2830 passed in 2008 by the house 395-7. They opted to pursue a states rights approach while the Democratic Party controlled the house, senate and won the presidency. Senator boxer let the bill die over state rights while NY’s plan had the ability geographically to protect the Great Lakes. Subsequent to the demise of H.R.2830 NY decided to abandon their states rights plan in favor of a weaker Coast Guard plan being drawn up under the new Obama administration. Now we have nothing that compares to the standard or the continuous improvement that was embedded in the legislation of h.r.2830. It is good to see Mr.Duagan ask people to address the Senate about strengthening legislation rather than Just using state rights to thwart all legislation as was done a decade ago with the strong legislation of h.r.2830.

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