This is the best news in decades on invasive species in the Great Lakes, and chances are, you haven’t heard it yet. Thanks to a New York rule upheld in court last week, starting in 18 months no ship can enter the Great Lakes unless it has the technology to disinfect its ballast water to stop the discharge of invasive species. And that’s not just in New York; it’s anywhere in the Great Lakes.
What happened last week is pretty technical, and that’s why it’s been quiet: New York’s Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) refused to overturn the state’s conditions for certification of EPA’s national ballast water discharge permit. That means New York’s rules for implementing the national ballast water discharge permit are final – no more appeals. (Check out Thom Cmar’s blog post for further details).
What does that mean?
Well, New York’s rules say that beginning January 1, 2012, no ocean-going ship can travel through New York waters without having a ballast water treatment technology that meets some of the toughest standards in the world – approaching zero discharge of invasive species. To repeat: any ocean-going ship that PASSES THROUGH NEW YORK’S WATERS must have a treatment system that meets these protective standards.
And how many ocean-going ships entering the Great Lakes pass through New York’s waters? EVERY SINGLE ONE. Any ocean-going ship entering the Great Lakes must travel through the St. Lawrence River, through a series of locks including the Snell and Eisenhower Locks in New York. Ships can’t get through the river into the Great Lakes without transiting those locks, and the two other entrances to the Great Lakes (the Erie Canal and the Chicago canals) aren’t big enough to handle ocean-going vessels. So ocean-going ships can’t get into the Great Lakes without traveling through New York’s waters.
And because every ocean-going ship entering the Great Lakes has to travel through New York’s waters, every one of those ships will have to install technology that can meet these incredibly protective ballast water discharge standards by January 1, 2012.
Ballast water discharges from ocean-going ships are the largest source of invasive species in the Great Lakes. They’ve brought us creatures like zebra mussels, quagga mussels, round gobies, and spiny water fleas. And once these invaders establish residence in the lakes, they’re here to stay. They have few natural predators, so they outcompete native species, reproduce like crazy, and damage the Great Lakes ecosystem.
The Coast Guard and EPA have both taken half-measures to address these ballast water discharges, but none have been very effective. Congress has considered new legislation, but it stalled last session and in any event would not be implemented nearly as rapidly as New York’s rule. States like New York have begun to step up, but common wisdom was that no single state could stop harmful ballast water discharges throughout the Great Lakes because ships could simply avoid that state and instead discharge their ballast water in a state with weaker protections or in Canadian waters.
But New York took advantage of geography. Knowing that every ship entering the Great Lakes has to travel through New York’s waters, New York set requirements for ships that are just passing through, even if they don’t actually discharge in New York. That means the New York standards apply to all ships entering the Great Lakes. The weaker protection efforts by the Coast Guard and EPA and the slower standards proposed in Congress have been left far behind.
Now the New York rules must be implemented and enforced, which is no small challenge. But New York deserves our applause and gratitude. In a mere 18 months – many years faster than the Coast Guard or Congress has even contemplated – no ocean-going ship will be able to discharge invasive species-contaminated ballast water into the Great Lakes. That truly will be something to celebrate.