Some Michigan lawmakers say time has come to revisit, relax state's standard for vessels discharging ballast water

Stateline Midwest ~ November 2012

Five years ago, Michigan issued its first ballast water permit — the result of legislation passed in 2005 and of decades-long concerns about the ecological and economic impact of aquatic invasive species. The move was widely regarded as a historic moment in Great Lakes protection. 

No other state had established such a permitting program, and Michigan was ahead of the federal government in addressing the leading cause of harmful non-native species entering the Great Lakes. But some Michigan legislators say the time has now come for their state to revisit its unique permitting standards.

“We keep hearing that we want Michigan to be a leader on this issue, but if we’re a leader, nobody is following us,” says Republican Sen. Mike Green, the sponsor of a bill that would change the standards.

No other Great Lakes state has standards as stringent as Michigan’s, he says, a situation that he compares to expecting protection from a “half-chlorinated pool.”

“It’s not doing any benefit to the Great Lakes; it’s just hampering Michigan jobs,” Green says, noting ships can simply use other states’ ports and, as a result, introduce invasive species that can spread across the basin.

Under Michigan’s current regulatory framework, ocean-going vessels wanting to use one of the state’s 40 commercial ports must secure a permit by doing one of the following:

  • not discharging ballast water, or 
  • treating  ballast water with one of four pre-approved technology methods or an alternative method cleared by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

SB 1212 would ease these standards; it calls for a permit to be granted to any ocean-going vessel that conducts a ballast water exchange and undergoes saltwater flushing before entering Michigan waters — thus removing the requirement that a vessel discharging ballast water use a state-approved treatment technology.

Since 2006, under U.S. and Canadian rules, all overseas vessels entering the Great Lakes have been required to conduct saltwater flushing and ballast water exchanges.

Sarah LeSage, aquatic invasive species coordinator for Michigan’s DEQ, says the flushing and exchanges have significant benefits — but do not sufficiently guard against invasions.

“In our opinion, there is too much risk associated with that single ballast water management practice,” she says.

Since 2007, no ocean-going ship has filed for a ballast water discharge permit in Michigan. But even prior to the new rules being in place, the state’s ports had little or no traffic from ocean-going vessels.

With a change in permitting standards, though, Green sees potential to expand port activity as the state exports more and more goods, including crops from his heavily agricultural legislative district.

Such a change appears unlikely right now; Republican Gov. Rick Snyder opposes SB 1212.

“Is there potential for new markets? That is an unknown,” LeSage says. “But what we do know is that the aquatic invasive species that are here have had and continue to have a negative effect on our ecosystem and on our local economy.”

Regardless of the actions of the federal government or other states, she adds, Michigan has a responsibility to protect the lakes to the best of its ability.

And through a mix of litigation and advocacy, Michigan has been pushing for more-protective federal standards. One result of those efforts will be a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Vessel General Permit.  (The existing permit was challenged in court by Michigan and other litigants who said it did not do enough to protect water quality.)

A final rule for the new permit was due by the end of November. The likely result is that the EPA will join the Coast Guard in having standards that follow those of the International Maritime Organization.

“They are taking positive steps toward the ultimate goal of water quality protection,” LeSage says. “We still don’t think they go far enough. There is room to develop a limit that protects water quality in the long run.”

Along with Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are the other Great Lakes states with ballast water permitting programs in place; neither of those two states’ criteria, though, are more stringent than the IMO standard.

New York had been moving ahead with plans to implement the toughest permitting standards in the nation by 2013. However, earlier this year, state officials announced they were delaying implementation, and would instead focus on pushing for stronger EPA protections.