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.
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.
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.
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
More than 1,000 U.S. Coast Guard nautical charts have been
released for public use at no charge.
What started out as a three-month pilot program by the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has become a permanent
service. The free charts, which are offered in PDF format, are
especially valued by recreational boaters.
During the trial period, nearly 2.3 million charts were
downloaded, according to Rear Admiral Gerd Giang, director of
NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.
“To us, that represents more than two million opportunities to
avoid an accident at sea,” Giang said. “Up-to-date charts help
boaters avoid groundings and other dangers to navigation, so our
aim is to get charts into the hands of as many boaters as we
If you know the name of the waterway you wish to explore, the
fastest way to get a chart is to search the list of available
To help users zero in on the charts they need, NOAA has created
a website called the Interactive
Chart Locator. From there, one can view an image of the chart;
download a PDF version of the entire map; or choose a blown-up
version with numerous maps of the same area, known as a
NOAA also has begun offering its Raster Navigational Charts, a
composite of all the charts formatted for zooming in on a specific
location. That is especially useful for viewing on a computer
screen or mobile device. Free software and viewers from third-party
sources also are listed on the RNC
NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey is the nation’s nautical
chartmaker, according to information provided by the agency.
Created by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807, the office updates
charts, surveys the coastal seafloor, responds to maritime
emergencies and searches for underwater obstructions that pose a
danger to navigation.
The Coast Survey’s Twitter handle is @NOAAcharts. A blog —
— provides information about the agency’s ongoing activities.
The Coast Guard reported today that things went smoothly during
the first day of enforcement using the new “smart” ID card called
the Transportation Worker Identification Credential or TWIC.
“Most of our ports here in the Pacific Northwest got off to a
great start today,” Coast Guard Capt. Suzanne Englebert said in a
“Of the 270 port employees randomly inspected by the Coast Guard
today, 99 percent had their cards, and the sole remaining person
was enrolled in the system but simply hadn’t received their card
yet,” said Englebert, who is captain of the port for the Seattle
Communication among federal and state officials, the maritime
industry and labor unions was the key, Englebert said.
It is yet to be seen whether things will go as smoothly for
everyone else. The Seattle Department of Transportation is saying
drivers may run into traffic backups Monday and Tuesday at several
waterfront terminals, including Terminal 5 in West Seattle,
Terminal 18 on Harbor Island Terminal 46 off Alaskan Way.
“While the TWIC card requirement has been widely publicized, it
is difficult to estimate how many drivers might arrive on Monday
without the card,” states a press
release from Seattle DOT.
Although the card adds a complication to the movement of goods
in and out of ports, it is considered part of the increased
security system to guard against terrorism at ports of entry.
This week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano revealed
that her agency would not meet its 2012 deadline for screening all
cargo coming into the country. See the
Associated Press story about her appearance before a House
committee and her
It is estimated that eventually more than 1.5 million people
will obtain the card. The card is required for workers who need
unescorted access into secure area of ports. They include port
employees, longshoremen, mariners and truckers.
One of the more interesting questions to come up was whether a
group of people who dress up 19th century garb and use mules to
pull a ferryboat along a canal in Easton, Pa., would need the new
card to carry on with the historical re-enactment The answer was
yes. See story in
The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.