Tag Archives: U.S. Coast Guard

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.

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Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters

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
Lakes ecosystems.

Ballast discharge from a ship Photo: Coast Guard
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

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 from California.

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.

Green crab Photo: USGS
Green crab // Photo: USGS

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 unnoticed.

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 treatment systems.

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 face.

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 EPA.

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 houses.

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 regulations.

NOAA opens its catalog of nautical charts

Chart

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 can.”

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 PDFs.

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 “booklet.”

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 webpage.

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 — noaacoastsurvey.wordpress.com — provides information about the agency’s ongoing activities.

New port security card gets off to a good start — so far

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 news release.

“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 district.

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 prepared remarks.

Back to the TWIC security cards, more than 700,000 workers have enrolled in the program at 15 of the nation’s ports, according to a fact sheet from the Transportation Security Administration. Enrollment is offered at 150 fixed enrollment centers and over 370 mobile sites nationwide.

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.