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CLEVELAND - One by one, more than 180 fish, mussels, plants, and other aquatic forms of life that don't belong in the Great Lakes have established a stronghold, messing up the food web for native fish that drive the region's multibillion-dollar tourism industry.
The invasive species also have dealt blows to property values - and have helped to increase the cost of treating drinking water for 35 million people who live in the basin.
A new problem? Hardly.
In recent years, an average of one new exotic species has been found in the lakes every eight months. Besides causing a multitude of subtle-yet-powerful changes to the lake's biology, they have been blamed for anything from more algae to dead fish and birds washing up on beaches.
The Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Fishery Commission was created in 1955 to combat the decline of valuable lake trout that were having the life sucked out of them by vampirelike sea lamprey.
Some lamprey managed to slip into the lake system in the 1800s. They came in droves after the 27-mile Welland Canal had been dug between Lakes Erie and Ontario so that ships could get around Niagara Falls in the early 1900s.
Zebra mussels, one of the most notorious - and costly - invaders arrived in the lakes 20 years ago this year. They alone cost Great Lakes cities and power generators some $500 million annually because of how they clog intake pipes. The cost to the ecology? In the billions, easily.
A handful of bills in Congress and an untold number of broken promises later, the lakes remain vulnerable.
At a 2002 conference in Cleveland, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared invasive species the No. 1 threat facing the Great Lakes. For the first time anyone can recall, the top issue was something other than what people traditionally think of as pollution.
The agency, though, resisted calls to crack down on the shipping industry with provisions in the federal Clean Water Act that allow for exotic species in a ship's ballast tank to be regulated as biological pollution.
The U.S. EPA is about to do that, after losing a landmark case involving exotic species in a federal courtroom in California. The agency's new rules, which it was ordered to write, go into effect Oct. 1.
The federal EPA will require ships to exchange their fresh ballast water at sea - a familiar refrain, because ocean-going vessels were supposed to have been doing that since at least 1990. That requirement came from legislation that one of Ohio's former U.S. senators, Democrat John Glenn, pushed through Congress 18 years ago.
Since then, though, the agency has exempted ships weighted down by enough cargo to be declared a "no ballast on board" vessel. Records showed the exemption ended up being granted to about 90 percent of the vessels.
While the EPA defends its new rules, the National Wildlife Federation fears the agency is just doing more window dressing.
"We need something with teeth," said Jordan Lubetkin, spokesman for the group's Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, who called the EPA's response "nothing more than the status quo."
"We need to light a fire under Congress and specifically the Senate for a problem that's been brewing for decades," Mr. Lubetkin said.
A bill to the group's liking passed the U.S. House in April. It would require ships to install technology that will kill all exotics and micro-organisms that are in their ballast tanks, though allowing for some flexibility in the type of technology that is used.
The U.S. Senate has not acted on it.
Ballast water, which is used to weigh down and balance ships, long has been viewed as the biggest pathway for exotics. Freshwater fish, mussels, and other exotics are typically drawn into an ocean-going ship's ballast on another continent, then transported to the lakes and let go as ballast is released in port to compensate for added cargo weight.
Without effective controls, biologists fear the odds of such trans-oceanic transfers will increase as global trade continues to rise.
During a recent gathering with reporters at the Port of Cleveland, several government and industry officials acknowledged past failures but said effective changes are on the horizon at the federal level.
In 2005, Michigan became the first state to create its own permitting system - something which observers viewed as a cue for Washington that it was tired of the foot-dragging. It can impose fines of up to $25,000. Ohio has been considering a similar program.
"The states are obviously frustrated. That's why they're moving forward with their own legislation," said James Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association.
His association represents ships known as "lakers" that are restricted to Great Lakes ports in the United States and Canada. They do not leave the lake system. The ballast problem originates with "salties," or those vessels which travel across the world.
Lakers are far more common, arriving in ports seven to 10 times more frequently than salties.
Commander Tim Cummins, waterways planning chief for the U.S. Coast Guard's ninth district office in Cleveland, said that stopping invasive species is no easy task.
"Oil is easy to spot. You can see it and clean it up," he said. "Invasive species don't fit that mold."
Jennifer Nalbone, navigation and invasive species director for Great Lakes United, a consortium of U.S. and Canadian environmental groups, said she's hopeful Congress will pass ballast water standards that set the bar high enough.
The status quo can't continue, she said.
"Twenty years after zebra mussels entered the Great Lakes, we don't have the regulations in place that would have stopped them in the first place," Ms. Nalbone said.
"It's a travesty our two countries haven't put something in place that would have stopped the poster child [of invasive species]," she said.
Contact Tom Henry at:
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