The first 10 toxic chemicals to be reviewed under the amended
Toxic Substances Control Act were announced this week by the
Environmental Protection Agency. After review, these chemicals
could be banned or significantly restricted in their use.
As specified by law, the first 10 chemicals were chosen from 90
listed in the TSCA Work Plan, based on their high hazard and the
likelihood of human and environmental exposure.
Incidentally, seven of the 10 chemicals to be reviewed are
contaminants that have reached sources of drinking water at various
sites across the country. Six of the seven are known or suspected
of causing cancer in humans.
These are the seven chemicals known to contaminate drinking
The Environmental Protection Agency approved new water-quality
standards for Washington state this week, overriding a plan
approved by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of
It was a rare posture for the EPA. Now the state will be
pressured to appeal the EPA standards to federal court. Cities and
counties as well as some industrial organizations are clearly
unhappy with the EPA’s action, while environmental and tribal
representatives got most of what they wanted.
The EPA action is especially unusual, given that this state is
known for some of the strongest environmental regulations in the
country. After much dispute, Ecology finally agreed to much higher
fish-consumption rates without increasing the cancer-risk rate,
leading to more stringent standards for many of the chemicals. But
Ecology had its own ideas for the most troublesome compounds with
implications for human health. They include polychlorinated
biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic and mercury. For background, see
Water Ways, Oct. 18, 2015.
Some news reports I saw this week said EPA’s action will lead to
salmon that are safer to eat. But that’s not at all certain, and
opponents say it is unlikely that the revised limits on chemical
pollution will have any practical effect on compounds that affect
While talking to researchers and investigating a variety of
biologically active compounds, I began to realize the complexity of
the body’s internal chemistry. I thought I knew something about the
endocrine system, but I never fully considered how one hormone can
trigger responses in multiple organs, including the release of
additional hormones, even creating feedback loops.
It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old
female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead
— even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now
appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will
not survive either.
I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in
Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks,
including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still
alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but
at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she
might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the
Strait of Juan de Fuca.
During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of
Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of
Puget Sound orcas.
Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for
the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to
provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.
Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting
that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was
easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the
distinctive mark when she was nine years old.
At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning
problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their
primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn
fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic
chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can
affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other
On the outside, chum and coho salmon don’t seem all that
different from one another, not when you consider the variety of
fish in Puget Sound — from herring to halibut along with dozens of
odd-looking creatures (EoPS).
But we know that if you place coho in stormwater taken from a
heavily traveled roadway, the coho are likely to die within hours.
But if you do the same thing with chum, these hardy fish will
barely notice the difference.
Researchers began to observe the varying effects of pollution on
different species of salmon years ago. In 2006, I reported on
studies by researcher Nat Scholz of the National Marine Fisheries
Service, who discovered that coho would swim into Seattle’s heavily
polluted creeks to spawn, but they wouldn’t get very far. Within
hours, they would become disoriented, then keel over and die.
Sun, June 10, 2006)
Later, Jenifer McIntyre, a researcher with Washington State
University, collaborated with Scholz to refine the studies,
exposing adult coho and later young coho to stormwater under
controlled conditions. Much of that work was done at the Suquamish
Tribe’s Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. The researchers
also measured the physiological effects of pollution on zebrafish
embryos during their early stages of development.
Working at the Washington Stormwater Center in Puyallup, Jen
made a remarkable discovery that has dramatically changed people’s
thinking about stormwater treatment. She found that if you run the
most heavily polluted stormwater through a soil medium containing
compost, the water will no longer have a noticeable effect on the
sensitive coho. Rain gardens really do work.
Now, Jen, who recently joined the faculty of WSU, is beginning a
new phase of her research, probing deeper into the physiological
responses of coho salmon when exposed to polluted stormwater. She
told me that the varying responses of coho and chum offer clues
about where to look for problems.
“It is very interesting,” she said. “As biologists, we
understand that there is variability among species. But we would
expect, at least among salmon, that things would be pretty much the
Researchers in Japan have discovered that different kinds of
fish have different subunits in their hemoglobin, which are the
proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen to the vital organs.
Since coho and other salmon may have different forms of hemoglobin,
oxygen transport in the blood is a good place to start this
investigation, she said.
From there, the issues of blood chemistry get a little
technical, but the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen can
depend not only on the form of hemoglobin but also on the pH
(acidity) of the blood, she said, and that can be altered by drugs
and other chemicals.
Another thing that researchers may be seeing is “disseminated
intravascular coagulation,” a condition that results from clotting
in the lining of the capillaries. DIC can reduce or block blood
flow where it is most needed and eventually cause organ damage.
That’s an area for more research, Jen said, noting that these
investigations are moving forward in collaboration with researchers
at NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Meanwhile, Jen is working with chemists at the University of
Washington’s Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma to figure out which
substances — out of hundreds of chemicals found in stormwater —
could be causing these deadly effects on fish.
If isolating the dangerous compounds proves too difficult,
researchers might be able to start with the original toxic sources,
perhaps exposing fish to chemicals found in tires, oil, antifreeze
and so on, Jen said. For those effects, it might be good to begin
the investigation with the well-studied zebrafish embryos, which
are transparent and can be observed closely throughout their
Needless to say, this is a field of intense interest. If
researchers can discover what is killing coho, they might begin to
understand why the recovery of chinook salmon in Puget Sound has
been so slow. Chinook, which could be added to Jen’s studies, are
listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and
are the preferred prey of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which are
listed as endangered.
Two recent articles discussed the relative hardiness of the chum
compared to coho salmon:
The long-running controversy over Washington state’s water
quality standards for toxic chemicals is nearly over. We will soon
know just how pure the water must be to get a clean bill of
We still don’t know whether the Environmental Protection Agency
will approve the new state standards adopted this week or impose
more stringent standards that EPA developed for several key
pollutants. The EPA has already taken public comments on its
“We believe our new rule is strong, yet reasonable,” said Maia
Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, in a
release. “It sets standards that are protective and achievable.
With this rule now complete, we will continue to press forward to
reduce and eliminate toxics from every-day sources.”
For more than two years, much of the controversy focused on the
fish-consumption rate — an assumption about how much fish that
people eat. The FCR is a major factor in the equation used to set
the concentration of chemicals allowed in water before the waterway
is declared impaired. (See early discussions in
Water Ways, Nov. 11, 2010.)
Initially, after plenty of debate, the state proposed increasing
the FCR from 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day — a 27-fold
increase. The initial proposal counter-balanced the effect somewhat
by increasing the cancer-risk rate from one in a million to one in
100,000 — a 10-fold shift. Eventually, the state agreed to retain
the one-in-a-million rate.
As I described in
Water Ways last October, some key differences remain between
the state and EPA proposals. Factors used by the EPA result in more
stringent standards. The state also proposes a different approach
for PCBs, mercury and arsenic, which are not easily controlled by
regulating industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants — the
primary point sources of pollution.
PCB standards proposed by the EPA make representatives of
industry and sewage-treatment systems very nervous. Water-quality
standards are the starting points for placing legal limits on
discharges, and EPA’s standard of 7.6 picograms per liter cannot be
attained in many cases without much higher levels of treatment,
Entities in Eastern Washington are in the midst of planning
efforts to control pollution in the Spokane River, and major sewer
upgrades are under consideration, the letter says.
“If Ecology were to follow the same approach on Puget Sound that
it has on the Spokane River, this would amount to a range of
compliance costs from nearly $6 billion to over $11 billion for
just the major permits identified by EPA,” the letter continues. “A
more stringent PCB criterion is also likely to impact how
stormwater is managed, as PCB concentrations have been detected in
stormwater throughout the state.”
For pulp and paper mills using recycled paper, the primary
source of PCBs is the ink containing the toxic compounds at
EPA-allowed concentrations, the letter says. Other major sources
are neighborhoods, where PCBs are used in construction materials,
and fish hatcheries, where PCBs come from fishmeal.
The letter points out similar problems for EPA’s proposed
mercury standard, calling the level “overly conservative and
unattainable in Washington (and the rest of the United States), as
the levels of mercury in fish are consistently higher than the
When water-quality criteria cannot be attained for certain
chemicals using existing water-treatment technology, facilities may
be granted a variance or placed under a compliance schedule. Both
environmentalists and facility owners have expressed concern over
uncertainties about how the agencies might use these
Despite the uncertainties, environmentalists and Indian tribes
in Washington state generally support the more stringent standards
proposed by the EPA.
“Tribes concur that water quality discharge standards are only a
part of the toxic chemical problem in the state of Washington and
that more efforts toward source control and toxic cleanup are
needed,” writes Lorraine Loomis of the
Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “However, the standards
are an essential anchor for determining where and how to deploy
toxic reduction efforts and monitor enforcement.”
When I said this controversy is nearly over, I was referring to
a time schedule imposed this week by U.S. District Judge Barbara
Rothstein, who ruled that the EPA missed its own deadlines for
updating water quality criteria.
Rothstein, responding to claims from five environmental groups,
imposed a new deadline based on EPA’s own suggested dates. Because
the state has finalized its rule, the EPA now has until Nov. 15 to
either approve the state’s criteria or sign a notice imposing its
own standards. Checkout the
judge’s ruling (PDF 494 kb).
The new criteria won’t have any practical effect until applied
to federal discharge permits for specific facilities or in
developing cleanup plans for specific bodies of water — although
state inspectors could use the new state criteria for enforcing
state laws if they discover illegal discharges.
Once in a while, a video shows up featuring some amazing
phenomena not well known by most people. This is the case with a
YouTube video by
Mind Warehouse called “Ten Ocean Phenomena You Won’t Believe
I’ve featured several of the phenomena you’ll see in this video
from my “Amusing Monday” series, but I admit that I did not know
that some of these things even exist — and at least one photo
appears to be a hoax that fooled the producers of the video on this
I’ve searched out a little more about each of the phenomena with
links if you would like to learn more about any of these strange
Thousands of self-cloned animals called tunicates occasionally
come together to form a giant hollow tube that may grow to 60 feet
long, according to Oceana’s
Ocean Animal Encyclopedia. Giant pyrosomes are bioluminescent,
producing their own light.
Because the tunicates can reproduce by cloning, the colony can
regenerate its damaged parts to keep the tube intact. The tunicates
that form pyrosomes are related to those found in the Salish Sea.
Check out Emerald Diving’s
In 1995, divers discovered what looked like strange “crop
circles” like those reported in farm fields, but these were on the
ocean bottom near Japan. Other circles were found, but it took a
decade before it was determined that male pufferfish make the
circles as part of a mating ritual.
“When the circles are finished, females come to inspect them,”
according to an article in LiveScience
by Douglas Main. “If they like what they see, they reproduce with
the males, said Hiroshi Kawase, the curator of the Coastal Branch
of Natural History Museum and Institute in Chiba, Japan. But nobody
knows exactly what the females are looking for in these circles or
what traits they find desirable, Kawase told LiveScience.”
Most icebergs are white, but all sorts of blue-striped icebergs
can be found in nature. They are the result of water filling a
crevice and freezing so fast that no bubbles form. Green stripes
form when algae-rich water freezes. Brown, yellow and black are the
result of sediments being picked up by the water before it freezes.
See undocumented photos and story by Mihai Andrei in
Red tides can be found all over the world. Although “red tide”
is a term often associated with poisonous plankton, many of the
orange and red tides do not produce toxins harmful to people or
In Puget Sound, blooms of a dinoflagellate called Noctiluca
sometimes create what appear to be works of art, as I described in
Water Ways in June of 2013.Eyes Over
Puget Sound, a program that monitors surface conditions,
frequently presents pictures of colorful algae blooms, including a
new edition published this morning.
One of the strongest whirlpools in the world is at Saltstraumen,
a fjord in Norway where a massive exchange of water rushes through
an opening just 500 feet wide. Review the video “Deepest Hole in the
When salt-rich water streams into the sea, it can form an
underwater finger of ice called a brinicle, sometimes referred to
as “the ice finger of death.” The super-cooled briny water is
colder than the surrounding sea, so the stream reaches out and
freezes as it goes. See the article by Douglas Main in LiveScience
or check out the blog post in
Water Ways from November 2011.
When big waves come together at sea, the result is often a giant
wave large enough to wreck an ocean-going ship or rush to shore
with tremendous force. In January of this year, a killer wave —
also known as a rogue wave — was recorded along the Pacific Coast
in Grays Harbor County at a stream called Joe Creek. See
Q-13 TV video “Rogue Wave …”
When the air is considerably colder than a calm sea or lake, ice
crystal can be extruded above the surface to form structures that
resemble flowers. This occurs when water vapor sublimes from thin
surface ice into the air without passing through the liquid phase.
The warm moist air at the surface of the ice rises and quickly
freezes in the colder air above.
Conditions leading to frost flowers often occur in the polar
regions as new sea ice forms. Once the ice grows a little thicker,
the surface cools down and the temperature difference between the
ice and atmosphere are too close for the vapor to rise and then
Robert Krulwich, who hosted a science show for
National Public Radio, discussed the phenomenon from the point
of view of Jeff Bowman, a University of Washington graduate student
in 2009 when he spotted frost flowers on his way back from an
expedition to the Arctic.
Baltic and North sea meeting point
In the Mind Warehouse video, the narrator discusses a bunch of
pictures purportedly showing the meeting point of the Baltic and
North seas. I have been unable to track down all these photos or
confirm that any of them were taken at the convergence zone of the
Baltic and North seas.
One of the photos appears to have been taken in Alaska, showing
the melt water from a glacier converging with ocean water. As in
Puget Sound, the lower-density freshwater tends to form a layer
over the salty seawater. See
Kent Smith’s photo, taken from a cruise ship, and a story about
research by the U.S.
Geological Survey taken in the Gulf of Alaska.
It’s amusing to see all the myth-versus-fact posts on various
Internet sites regarding the question of whether waters from the
Baltic Sea actually mix with waters from the North Sea. (Search for
“Baltic and North sea mixing.”) I gave up trying to find credible
photos, but there exists an actual phenomenon regarding the mixing
of the two seas. Wikipedia provides
“The Baltic Sea flows out through the Danish straits;
however, the flow is complex. A surface layer of brackish water
discharges 940 km3 (230 cu mi) per year into the North Sea. Due to
the difference in salinity, by salinity permeation principle, a
sub-surface layer of more saline water moving in the opposite
direction brings in 475 km3 (114 cu mi) per year. It mixes very
slowly with the upper waters, resulting in a salinity gradient from
top to bottom, with most of the salt water remaining below 40 to 70
m (130 to 230 ft) deep. The general circulation is anti-clockwise:
northwards along its eastern boundary, and south along the western
Living organisms can be seen to glow during a chemical reaction
that involves a light-emitting pigment and an enzyme that serves as
a catalyst for the reaction. Depending on the species,
bioluminescence may be used to escape from prey, attract prey or
signal for a mate. Sometimes researchers can’t tell why an animal
has the ability to light up. One of the best write-ups I’ve seen is
Last fall, I featured in
“Amusing Monday” a tiny creature called a sea sapphire that
flashes brilliant hues of green, blue and purple then seems to
disappear before your eyes. The organism is a copepod that is able
to shift its plates to adjust the wavelength of light reflected
from crystals underneath. When the reflected light is shifted far
enough into the ultraviolet, the little animals nearly
Harbor seals have become prime suspects in the deaths of
millions of young steelhead trout that die each year in Puget
Sound, but the seals may not be working alone.
Disease and/or various environmental factors could play a part,
perhaps weakening the young steelhead as they begin their migratory
journey from the streams of Puget Sound out to the open ocean.
Something similar is happening to steelhead on the Canadian side of
the border in the Salish Sea.
More than 50 research projects are underway in Puget Sound and
Georgia Strait to figure out why salmon runs are declining — and
steelhead are a major focus of the effort. Unlike most migratory
salmon, steelhead don’t hang around long in estuaries that can
complicate the mortality investigation for some species.
The steelhead initiative was launched by the Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership with
funding from the Legislature. The steelhead work is part of the
Marine Survival Project, which is halfway through its five-year
term, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings, which
coordinates the effort in the U.S. The larger project involves at
least 60 organizations, including state and federal agencies,
Indian tribes and universities.
report on research findings for steelhead (PDF 9.8 mb)
describes the most significant results to date for our official
state fish, which was listed as “threatened” in 2007. While
steelhead populations on the Washington Coast and Columbia River
have rebounded somewhat since their lowest numbers in the 1980s,
steelhead in the Salish Sea remain at historical lows — perhaps 10
percent of their previous average.
“Because steelhead are bigger and move fast through the system,
they are easier to study (than other salmon species),” Michael told
me. “It has been a lot easier to feel confident about what you are
Steelhead can be imbedded with tiny acoustic transmitters, which
allow them to be tracked by acoustic receivers along their
migration routes to the ocean. It appears that the tagged fish
survive their freshwater journey fairly well, but many soon
disappear once they reach Puget Sound. The longer they travel, the
more likely they are to perish before they leave the sound.
While steelhead are susceptible to being eaten by a few species
of birds, their primary predators appear to be harbor seals. These
findings are supported by a new study that placed acoustic
receivers on seals and observed that some of the transmitters
embedded in steelhead ended up where the seals hang out, suggesting
that the fish were probably eaten.
In a different kind of tagging study, Canadian researchers
placed smaller passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags in a large
number of coho salmon and attached devices to read the PIT tags on
“What is most interesting to date,” states a new
report from the Pacific Salmon Foundation,“ (PDF 4 mb), “is
that we only have confirmed feeding on tagged coho salmon by four
of the 20 seals equipped with receivers. This suggests that feeding
on juvenile salmon may be an opportunistic behavior acquired by a
limited number of seals.”
New studies are underway to confirm steelhead predation by
looking at fecal samples from seals in South Puget Sound.
Researchers hope to figure out what the seals are eating and
estimate steelhead consumption.
As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, it may be more
than a simple case of seals eating steelhead. For one thing, seal
populations may have increased while their other food choices have
decreased. Would the seals be eating as many steelhead if Puget
Sound herring populations were close to their historical
Other factors may be making young steelhead vulnerable to
predation. A leading candidate is a parasite called Nanophyetus
salmincola, which can infest steelhead and perhaps increase
their risk of predation. The parasite’s life cycle requires a snail
and a warm-blooded animal, as I described in a story I wrote for
of Puget Sound — part of a larger piece about disease as a
powerful ecological force. Anyway, the snail is found only in
streams in South Puget Sound, which might help explain why
steelhead deaths are higher among these South Sound
Experiments are underway to compare the survival of two groups
of identical steelhead, one group infested with
Nanophyetus and one not.
Depending on funding and proper design, another experiment could
test whether treating a stream to temporarily eliminate the snail —
an intermediate host — could increase the survival of steelhead. If
successful, treating streams to remove these snails could be one
way of helping the steelhead. For these and other approved and
proposed studies, check out the Marine Survival Project’s
“2015-2017 Research Work Plan” (PDF 9.3 mb).
Other factors under review that could play a role in steelhead
survival are warming temperatures and pollution in Puget Sound,
which could help determine the amount and type of plankton
available for steelhead and salmon. Could a shift in plankton
result in less food for the small fish? It’s a major question to be
I’ve mentioned in
Water Ways (3/15/2010) that transient killer whales, which eat
seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises, may be helping their distant
cousins, the Southern Resident killer whales, which eat fish. Those
smaller marine mammals compete for the adult salmon eaten by the
Southern Residents. By clearing out some of those competitors, the
transients could be leaving more salmon for the Southern
It may be too early to draw any firm conclusions, Michael
Schmidt told me, but transient killer whales may be helping
steelhead as well. Last year, when transients ventured into South
Puget Sound and stayed longer than usual, the survival rate for
steelhead from the nearby Nisqually River was the highest it has
been in a long time.
Were the whales eating enough seals to make a difference for
steelhead, or were the seals hiding out and not eating while the
whales were around. Whether there were benefits for the steelhead,
we could be seeing what happens when a major predator (orcas)
encounters an abundance of prey (seals).
It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales
that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary
prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.
It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough
to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could
be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a
growing fetus during times of a food shortage.
Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s
condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about
two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those
miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of
pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.
In a story published today in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with
other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft
(drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern
Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.
Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales,
which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how
hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated,
but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When
adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin
to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’
long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.
One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone
studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in
winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam
and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the
spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that
spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not
in significant numbers.
The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is
providing precise measurements about the length and width of each
killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it
will be important to document whether physical changes observed in
the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the
“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne
Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more
than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations
might be affecting their health and reproduction.”
Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and
oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern
By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its
five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition
to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the
risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether
actions proposed to help them have been carried out.
Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight
endangered species across the country that are headed for
extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight,
selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as
“Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans
were released for all eight species.
The plan called
“Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2
mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’
survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and
effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document
describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the
whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.
Congress is on the verge of passing a law that would open a door
for invasive species to sneak into Puget Sound from San Francisco
Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country.
The proposed legislation, supported by the shipping industry, is
focused on reducing regulations surrounding the release of ballast
water, which large ships use to maintain stability. Environmental
groups and officials from at least nine states have voiced their
opposition to the proposal, saying it could result in long-term
damage to coastal and Great
Ballast water doesn’t get much attention in the media, but it
has been associated with the transfer of invasive species
throughout the world. Ships often take on ballast water at ports
where they unload their cargo before moving to their next
destination for a new load. As ships take on cargo, they discharge
ballast water from the previous location — along with any organisms
that hitched a ride.
Introduced species may multiply, displace native species and
disrupt the food web. Lacking natural predators, some invasive
species have been known to grow out of control, taking over beaches
or underwater areas.
Rules and more rules
To reduce the risk of invasive species, the U.S. Coast Guard
requires vessels from foreign countries to exchange their ballast
water at sea before entering U.S. waters. Studies have shown that
most organisms living out in the ocean don’t survive in coastal
waters, and vice versa. So it is less risky for Puget Sound to
receive ballast water picked up well off the coast than from
another coastal inlet.
Ships that don’t discharge ballast water don’t need to comply
with the Coast Guard’s ballast-exchange rule, nor do any ships
transiting the U.S. coast, such as those coming into Puget Sound
For years, fears have been growing that Puget Sound will become
invaded by species that could alter sea life as we know it today.
San Francisco Bay is dominated by more than 200 non-native species,
including the European
green crab and the Asian
clam — both of which have caused enormous economic losses to
the shellfish industry in various locations.
In contrast, Puget Sound has become home to an identified 74
non-native marine species, although early introductions of exotic
plankton — including some that produce toxins — could have gone
In reaction to growing concerns about invasive species, the
Washington Legislature passed a law in 2000 that requires ballast
exchange for ships arriving from anywhere outside a “common waters”
zone. That’s an area from the Columbia River to just north of
Vancouver, B.C. Consequently, ships from California that intend to
release ballast water into Puget Sound must first exchange their
ballast water at least 50 miles off the coast.
While the exchange of ballast water has been relatively
effective in controlling the release of non-native species, the
technique has always been considered an interim measure. Treating
ballast water to kill organisms has been the long-term goal — and
that’s where the confusion and frustration begins.
The International Maritime Organization has one treatment
standard nearing final adoption for ships throughout the world. The
Coast Guard says the IMO requirement to eliminate “viable”
organisms — those able to reproduce — is too risky. The Coast Guard
requires that organisms be killed. States may choose to issue their
own standards, and California has proposed the most stringent
treatment standards of all. Still, most of these standards are
essentially on hold pending testing and certification of specific
Shipping companies say all these costly and conflicting rules
are too difficult to navigate for businesses dealing in interstate
and international commerce. But that’s not all the rules they may
The Environmental Protection Agency became involved in ballast
water in 2008, after federal courts ruled that the shipping
industry is not exempt from the Clean Water Act. The EPA then came
up with a “vessel general permit” for ballast water and other
discharges from ships, a permit that was challenged twice by
environmental groups. Each time, the courts ruled against the
The latest EPA permit failed to require the “best available
technology” for ballast water treatment, failed to set numerical
standards, failed to require monitoring, and failed to meet other
provisions of the Clean Water Act, according to a ruling
handed down in October (PDF 6.4 mb) by the Second Circuit Court
of Appeals in New York. A revised permit is now in the works.
Legislation and politics
That brings us to the controversial legislation, called the
Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA. The essence of the bill
is to eliminate state jurisdiction and any oversight by the EPA.
Upon enactment, only Coast Guard rules would apply, and ships from
San Francisco would no longer need to exchange their ballast water
before coming into Washington or Oregon. For an in-depth
understanding of the bill, read the
Congressional Research Service report (PDF 3.5 mb).
The lack of coastwise ballast exchange is the biggest concern of
officials along the West Coast, where similar state requirements
are in effect. In California, the problem is that VIDA would allow
the spread of invasive species from San Francisco Bay to more
pristine bays, such as Humboldt Bay. While the bill allows states
to petition for regulations to deal with local conditions, nobody
knows how that would work. The petition would need scientific proof
that the local regulations are needed and feasible, and the Coast
Guard would have 90 days to make a decision.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, VIDA became attached to
the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved. NDAA is
a “must-pass” bill to authorize military funding and many other
things associated with national defense.
The Senate version of the defense bill does not contain the VIDA
provision. While the two bills are technically in a conference
committee, insiders tell me that top leaders in the House and
Senate must engage in political battles over the critical defense
bill and try to work out a compromise to gain approval in both
The shipping industry is lobbying hard for VIDA to stay in the
compromise bill, while environmentalists want to take it out. We
may not know which of the related and unrelated riders on the bill
will survive until the bill is ready for congressional action.
In the Senate, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio was the original
sponsor of the legislation when it was a stand-alone bill.
Republicans would like him to get a win for the folks back home,
where Rubio is engaged in a tight election race. (See Dan
Friedman’s story in Fortune.)
President Obama, threatening a veto, lists VIDA as one of many
provisions that he opposes in the House version of the National
Defense Authorization Act. See
Statement of Administration Policy (PDF 1.2 mb). Nobody thinks
he would veto the bill over ballast water alone.
Many shipping industry officials say they don’t object to
stringent treatment standards. They only wish to avoid multiple,
confusing standards. They also would like some assurance that the
standards are technically feasible and won’t require ongoing costly
changes to equipment.
Environmentalists say they don’t want to lose the authority of
the Clean Water Act, which allows average citizens to bring
lawsuits to protect the environment.
“The Clean Water Act is a tried and true approach for
controlling water pollution problems,” said Nina Bell of Northwest
Environmental Advocates in Portland. Her group was among those that
brought the lawsuit
against the EPA (PDF 6.8 mb).
“I think we are poised to make some real progress,” Nina told
me. “VIDA opts instead to take away authority from the
Environmental Protection Agency and give it to the Coast Guard,
which has no environmental expertise. The Coast Guard has a lot of
priorities, such as keeping people safe on ships and protecting our
waters, but this is not one of them.”
The EPA has clear authority to regulate ballast water and limit
the spread of invasive species, she said. If the EPA were to issue
strong requirements, the states would not need their own