Environmental groups are reacting to a U.S. House measure that could open the door to new invasive species in the Great Lakes as well as a recent settlement over a 2011 leak at a nuclear power plant located on Lake Michigan's shoreline.
Environmentalists are up in arms over provisions added to a national defense bill that would undermine regulations designed to thwart invasive species infestations in the Great Lakes and other U.S. waterbodies.
At issue is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the U.S. House approved Wednesday by a 277-147 vote despite a presidential veto threat. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where lawmakers are considering their own version of the defense policy and spending bill.
Language was included in the House's NDAA that would loosen Clean Water Act regulations involving ballast water discharged by ships. Boats take on and discharge ballast water, which can carry and spread harmful invasive species, for stability purposes.
"The National Defense Authorization Act is supposed to be about protecting the homeland, not welcoming invasive species to our waters," Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Thursday. "The Great Lakes are already reeling from the impacts of invasive species that have completely changed the ecosystem for the worse. A new invasive species transported in ballast water was just observed in San Francisco Bay last week -- it's an ominous precursor to Great Lakes arrivals that could occur as a result of this cave to special interests."
The provisions added to the House defense bill are similar to those contained in the proposed Vessel Incidental Discharge Act.
The U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency and many states currently have various rules in place regulating vessel discharges. Proponents of the pending Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, including organizations that represent and rely upon the maritime transportation industry, say U.S. shippers and other vessel operators face a hodgepodge of federal and state regulations that makes water-discharge compliance confusing and expensive.
The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act would essentially replace the existing patchwork of state and federal regulations with a single set of national standards established by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Conservation groups take issue with the proposal because it would preempt vessel discharge provisions in the Clean Water Act and could put the nation's waters at risk for new invasive species infestations, among other concerns.
"Communities and businesses across the country that have borne the tremendous costs associated with aquatic invasive species deserve a solution that shuts the door on future invasions," said Marc Smith, policy director at the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Regional Center. "Provisions in the House bill, however, (attempt) to gut the Clean Water Act, which would leave the door open to future economic and natural resource impacts. We urge the Senate to act in the best interest of people and wildlife and reject these short-sighted measures."
The White House gave the House's NDAA a thumbs down for numerous reasons, including its impact on ballast water regulations. In a statement threatening a presidential veto of the bill, the Obama administration said the measure "undermines the ability to fight the spread of invasive species in our nation's waters" partly because it would "irreparably hinder the successful prosecution of unlawful" ballast water discharges.
Over 140 invasive species like the zebra mussel and round goby are already causing serious damage to the Great Lakes ecosystem, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As for the much-maligned Asian carp, NOAA says the fish "could pose a significant risk if they are allowed to get established in the Great Lakes ecosystem."
Late last month, the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee released its 2016 action plan for preventing the introduction, spread and establishment of Asian carp into the Great Lakes. The committee said $57.3 million in federal funding would be put toward efforts this year to fight the spread of Asian carp.
According to the group, some of the strategies expected to be implemented this year include: "Construction of a new electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal; closure actions at Little Killbuck Creek Pathway and Ohio-Erie Canal; addressing the potential for fish to be trapped between barges and transported to new areas, referred to as entrainment; applying improved fishery nets and equipment; development of new control technologies and strategies; and increasing monitoring activities based on ongoing risk assessments."
Settlement Reached Over Leak At Nuclear Plant Located On Lake Michigan Shoreline
Environmental and anti-nuclear activists, meanwhile, are sounding off over a settlement reached last week between the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Entergy, a company that operates the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in southwest Michigan.
The plant is located in Covert Township on Lake Michigan's shoreline.
As part of a three-year investigation, NRC concluded that four Palisades plant employees "willfully violated" procedures in their handling of a storage tank leak into the facility's control room in 2011.
"Even though the leak did not result in damage to control room or other safety equipment, the NRC determined that four Palisades employees willfully failed to enter information which identified the tank as the source of the control room leak into the corrective actions program," reads an NRC statement. "This delayed Entergy's response to the issue. In addition, Entergy failed to perform an adequate analysis of the tank's ability to fulfill its safety function, and failed to follow requirements associated with a missed tank surveillance test. The tank is designed to provide borated water to cool the reactor in case of an accident."
The safety injection refueling water tank, located on the plant's roof, was not permanently repaired until 2013, after about 80 gallons of "slightly" radioactive water unexpectedly leaked into Lake Michigan.
For its part, Entergy does not believe employees willfully violated regulations. Rather, the company maintains, the violations were "the product of deficiencies in the organizational safety culture that existed at the time those violations occurred."
NRC and the company "agreed to disagree on the issue of willfulness" as part of the settlement, which imposed no fines on the company.
Entergy, the agreement says, has already implemented several "corrective actions" and is required to take additional improvement steps.
Among other requirements, the company has to ensure personnel from its Palisades plant and other nuclear facilities "understand lessons learned from this matter" and share such lessons with the nuclear power industry. The company has agreed to review its procedures and make any appropriate revisions.
Entergy is also required to "modify its current program of public outreach at Palisades" by holding additional public meetings, including one this year and two each in 2017 and 2018. The meetings must cover plant safety and operations, with at least one meeting focused on "the events that led to this" settlement agreement.
The agreement was reached by using NRC's alternative dispute resolution process with a third-party mediator.
"Using the ADR process allowed us to achieve not only compliance with NRC requirements, but a wide range of corrective actions that go beyond those the agency may get through the traditional enforcement process," NRC Region III Administrator Cynthia Pederson said in a news release. "The company will be reporting to the NRC as they are implementing the corrective actions. After Entergy notifies us in writing that they have fully met the conditions of the order, we will conduct an independent review and assessment of the company's compliance with the order commitments."
Beyond Nuclear, a national anti-nuclear watchdog group, is unhappy with the settlement order.
NRC has "yet again betrayed its mission -- to protect public health, safety, and the environment -- by disregarding its own OI's (Office of Investigations') conclusions," Beyond Nuclear's Kevin Kamps said in a statement. "Having 'agreed to disagree on the issue of willfulness,' NRC has let Entergy off the hook."
He added: "Not only Entergy, but the rest of the nuclear power industry, can thus learn the dangerous lesson that even willful violations of safety regulations, as at Palisades, will be tolerated by NRC, with no meaningful enforcement actions taken."