SHIPPING firms should work even faster to develop a safe way to clean ballast water before any more invasive species further damage the ecology of the Great Lakes. Even if they don't care about the planet, they should care about their own pocketbooks.
A coalition of environmental groups, led by the National Wildlife Federation, intends to file a lawsuit against nine shippers, contending that they are violating the national Clean Water Act by releasing contaminated ballast water into the lakes.
The lakes have been marred by pests like zebra mussels and round gobies. Now, a virus that causes fish to internally bleed to death is working its way through the lakes. Already, more than 180 "exotic," or alien, species have been found in the lakes, with their number growing every year. Most or all are believed to have arrived in the ballast water of ocean-going ships.
Sadly, Congress has failed to enact wide-ranging invasive species legislation. Earlier this year, Michigan became the first state to require shippers to treat ballast water and get permits from the state. That's a step in the right direction, but an essentially meaningless one unless U.S. and Canadian governments do the same.
The Clean Water Act requires such action on the part of shippers. But since 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency has checkmated any attempt to do so by exempting ocean ships from the requirement. That may no longer be the law of the land, since a federal court in California has ruled that such an exemption is invalid.
Whatever happens, the wheels of justice won't grind quickly. Environmental groups must wait 60 days to actually file suit in federal court against the shippers. Meanwhile, the damage continues. Some municipal treatment plants around the Great Lakes spend up to $100,000 a year to repair damage caused by zebra mussels. All told, invasive species disrupt the aquatic ecosystem and cost the economy billions of dollars annually.
To their credit, shipping firms know that they are partly to blame and claim they are working quickly to develop technology to kill invasive species in ballasts. But they haven't been working fast enough. The world's largest system of fresh-water lakes deserves protection.
If we don't provide it, the real damaged party will be the humans who live in the Great Lakes region, now and for generations to come.