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Published: Thursday, 3/15/2012

Refocus on ballast water

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Although the shipping industry has made some improvements to keep fish, plants, and bacteria from other continents out of the ballast water of ocean-going vessels, the U.S. and Canadian governments are nowhere near a long-term solution to prevent more exotic species from wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes.

The Obama Administration should not lose sight of that common pathway as it looks for a way to keep Asian carp out of the lake system. It must encourage the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to write tougher ballast water rules than the ones that are to be finalized this fall.

The Asian carp threat made people forget about the billions of dollars of damage caused by eastern European zebra mussels that were transported in the ballast water of ships to Lake St. Clair in 1986. Zebra and quagga mussels, their larger biological cousins that followed them, fanned out across the lakes, clogged intake pipes, destroyed food for native fish, and are partly to blame for the region's algae problem.

These mussels are just two of more than 180 unwanted intruders in the lakes. Most arrived in ballast water.

The new EPA regulations would require that ballast water be exchanged at sea to kill off freshwater species from other parts of the world. We've heard that strategy for years, going back to a law written by former U.S. Sen. John Glenn (D., Ohio) in 1990. It didn't stop all pests, nor did it stop fish from being killed in 2006 by a plague-like fish disease called viral hemorrhagic septicemia. Some scientists believe that virus was brought into the lakes via ballast water.

The new regulations are expected to require that ships be installed with exotic-species control technology to meet standards established in 2004 by the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations. Yet despite years of costly litigation and foot-dragging, EPA officials appear willing to give some ships nearly a decade to comply. That's far too generous.

It's time for the EPA to get serious, even if that means adding chlorine to or heat-treating ballast tanks. It could start by regulating ballast water in "lakers" -- ships confined to the Great Lakes that make up the majority of the region's ship traffic. They don't bring the exotic species into the Great Lakes, but they help spread them within the navigational system.

The failure to adopt a strong, national ballast-water standard has led to a flood of state rules. That doesn't serve the interests of anyone except politicians who want to point out the EPA's ineptitude on this issue. But even New York, which imposed strict ballast-water standards along its portion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, has delayed implementation under industry pressure.

Exotic species have damaged the Great Lakes since at least the 1800s. Vampire-like sea lamprey fed on native fish for more than 100 years. Access to the lakes by invaders was made easier in the early 1900s, when the Welland Canal was built to help ships bypass Niagara Falls. Zebra quagga mussels have plagued the lakes for three decades.

It's time to get tough on ballast water.



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