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Groups rip EPA's ballast water proposal
Updated 2/22/2012 12:47 PM ET
WASHINGTON — Conservation groups on Tuesday ripped a federal proposal to further shield the Great Lakes from the invasion of non-native species, such as zebra mussels and Asian carp.

The groups said the Environmental Protection Agency's draft vessel general permit to regulate ballast water discharges from commercial ships is far too weak and falls short of the agency's obligation under the Clean Water Act.

"The EPA's new proposed permit isn't tough enough to prevent the next harmful invader from slipping into our waters," Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told reporters.

Cmar said EPA was failing to take advantage of Clean Water Act tools "to finally slam the door on invasive species stowing away in vessels' ballast tanks."

The Natural Resources Defense Council joined Alliance for the Great Lakes, Great Lakes United, National Wildlife Federation and Northwest Environmental Advocates in a 34-page critique of the updated vessel general permit EPA proposed at the end of last November. Tuesday capped a 75-day public comment period.

EPA's new ballast discharge permit would require ships to install technology strong enough to eradicate much of the invasive species that prowl the water taken on for balance before it is dumped into harbors. Ships also would be required to empty ballast water before entering the Great Lakes.

More than 180 species, including zebra and quagga mussels, spiny water fleas and round gobies, have invaded the Great Lakes, damaging the ecosystem and costing the region about $200 million a year in damage and control costs, according to one study. About two-thirds of the nuisance species are believed to have entered through ballast water.

Critics of the proposal say it doesn't go far enough to ensure no non-native species are able to infiltrate the Great Lakes.

"Half-measures will not cut it," said Marc Smith, senior policy manager for the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office. "Prevention is the only responsible course of action to stop the influx of living, breathing, biological pollution into U.S. waters."

EPA's vessel general permit stems from the settlement of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups to compel the agency to develop pollution standards for ballast water under the Clean Water Act of 1972 to protect the Great Lakes.

The agency's new standards upgrade the 2008 permit set to expire in December 2013. EPA expects to issue final permit language in November. The new standards would take effect in December 2013, but vessels would have until after their first drydock in 2016 to install ballast water treatment equipment.

The conservation groups that spoke out Wednesday objected to EPA's timetable for compliance. In addition to a speedier timeline, the groups want EPA to establish a zero-discharge standard for invasive species, embrace the most protective technology available and develop separate standards for ships that only work the Great Lakes.

"People, businesses and communities deserve a solution that once and for all slams the door on aquatic invasive species," said Jennifer Nalbone of Great Lakes United. "While the pace of federal regulatory development has recently picked up after being grossly inadequate and slow for decades, the proposed permit must be strengthened so that it offers the strongest water quality protections."

There was no immediate response from the EPA to the criticisms from environmental groups.

The American Great Lakes Ports Association submitted a five-page comment largely in support of the EPA's permit proposal, though the group expressed concerns about the timeline and the requirements for new ships.

"The EPA has proposed a ballast water quality standard that is known to be technologically possible," said Steven Fisher, executive director at the ports association. "These rules have been debated and debated for years. It's time to quit arguing between good versus perfect and finalize the regulations."

Posted 2/21/2012 7:06 PM ET
Updated 2/22/2012 12:47 PM ET