PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday March 3rd, 2015, 5:54pm

Environmental, Maritime Industry Groups Sound Off On Federal Ballast Water Bill

Progress Illinois takes a look at the debate over pending federal legislation seeking to streamline regulations governing ballast water discharged by ships.

Maritime transportation and fishing industry groups are calling for swift action in Congress on pending federal legislation seeking to streamline regulations governing ballast water discharged by ships. Conservationists, on the other hand, say not so fast.

At issue is the bipartisan "Vessel Incidental Discharge Act," S. 373, which would create "nationally uniform and environmentally sound standards" for the regulation of ballast water and other vessel discharges associated with normal operations, including the release of ship deck runoff and engine cooling water. Boats take on and discharge ballast water, which can carry and spread harmful invasive species, for stability purposes.

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act in early February. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, chaired by Thune, reported the bill to the Senate on February 26.

A companion measure, H.R. 980, was also introduced last month in the House by U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-CA,50), Elijah Cummings (D-MD,7) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ,2). It is pending in the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Federal lawmakers introduced, but failed to pass, similar legislation in the previous 113th Congress.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency and 25 states currently have various rules in place regulating vessel discharges. Proponents of the pending legislation, 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.

"Workers in our fishing and shipping industries are the people hurt most by the excessive and often complicated web of federal and state regulations affecting vessel discharges," Rubio said last month in announcing the bill's introduction in the Senate. "We need a uniform set of environmentally sound standards that eliminates duplicative, redundant and sometimes entirely unnecessary regulation. This legislation would simplify the regulatory requirements on these businesses, which will allow them to spend less time worrying about unreasonable and complex regulations and more time focused on running successful businesses that employ thousands of Americans."

The proposed Vessel Incidental Discharge Act would essentially replace the existing patchwork of state and federal regulations with a single set of national standards.

Specifically, ballast water treatment rules established by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2012 would become the short-term national standard for vessels.

The legislation also calls for the U.S. Coast Guard and EPA to issue a revised rule by 2022 "that, if viable, is 100 times more stringent than the initial ballast water treatment standard," reads a news release from the Senate's commerce, science and transportation committee. "And if a more stringent state ballast water treatment standard is determined to be feasibly achievable, detectable, and commercially available, the more stringent standard would be adopted as the uniform national standard."

Commercial vessels under 79 feet as well as fishing and recreational boats would be permanently exempt from incidental discharge regulations under the measure. Currently, these vessels have a temporary exemption from such requirements. The exemption expires in 2017.

In a letter sent to leaders of the Senate's commerce, science and transportation committee last month, a coalition of more than 50 organizations in support of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act argued that existing federal and state rules governing vessel discharges are "counterproductive to the goal of enhanced environmental protection, as companies have delayed investment in costly treatment technologies because they lack certainty that such systems will be acceptable wherever a vessel calls."

The current rules, the groups added, create "inefficiencies and uncertainty that add costs for shippers that rely on marine transportation to move essential cargoes."

But conservationists 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.

Additionally, environmentalists have criticized the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, because they say it would "perpetuate a regulatory scheme that continues to place the economic burden associated with invasive species on the nation's taxpayers rather than shifting it to the industry responsible for bringing those species to the nation's waters."

Some of the bill's critics were, however, glad to see an amendment, put forward by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), added to the Senate legislation aimed at preventing invasive species from entering the Great Lakes via ballast water. As part of the amendment, vessels going through the St. Lawrence Seaway would have to "exchange their ballast water while still at sea and flush their tanks" before entering the Great Lakes.

Even with the amendment, Rebecca Reily, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the measure still falls short when it comes to safeguards against the transfer of invasive species.

"This bill puts a weak, untested standard in place that leaves the Great Lakes and America's coastline wide open to new invasive species," she said in a statement. "We are already spending more than a billion dollars every five years to deal with species introduced by ballast water like zebra and quagga mussels, round gobies, and bloody red shrimp. We can't afford to ignore the threat that this bill would cause already stressed ecosystems.

"Every other industry that discharges pollution into American waters must live up to the standards set by the Clean Water Act," Reily continued. "The shipping and cruise industries shouldn't be any different. We appreciate Senator Peters' amendments that improved the bill somewhat and hope that other dramatic changes occur before this bill goes to the full Senate."

Image: AP Photo/Dan Joling

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