Ballast Water Bill Passed Through Congress and Signed by the President

To understand the importance of this legislation, let’s first define the term “ballast water.” Ballast water is the water carried in ships’ ballast tanks to optimize a vessel’s stability, trim and balance. Ballast water is taken up or discharged when a ship’s cargo is unloaded or loaded, or when a ship needs added stability in diminished weather.

Why is Regulating the Discharge of Ballast Water Important?

The problems related to the discharge of ballast water are due to the spread of invasive and unwanted species that are taken on when ballast water is drawn from overseas ports and then that water is transported and discharged at U.S. ports. This includes port cities throughout the Great Lakes. Ballast water is responsible for carrying invasive species like zebra mussels, carnivorous goby, ruffe (or pope) and spiny water fleas – species that have proven expensive for local and state governments to deal with on their own.

Ten years ago, a federal court first issued a ruling on a ballast water discharge measure and since then the bill has been held up in Congress as interested parties such as ship owners and environmental groups dispute the benefits and liabilities of the measure.

In December 2018, the White House delivered signed legislation authorizing a new Coast Guard bill from Congress that includes the first-ever comprehensive plan for the regulation of ballast water as a pollutant.

About the Law

The bill as part of the Clean Water Act would put the regulation of ballast water discharge under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and make the  Coast Guard responsible for the bill’s enforcement. The bill contains provisions that would prevent states from enacting their own laws regarding the discharge of ballast water but does leave the ability for those in the Great Lakes Region to pass more stringent standards.

The bill will also support a new $50 million a year EPA program to monitor and respond to outbreaks of invasive species in the Great Lakes. The legislation will also fund the development of new ballast-control technologies for ships that travel only within the Great Lakes.

Invasive Species Like the Zebra Mussel Put a Strain on Ecological Systems and Budgets

The infiltration of zebra mussels into U.S. lakes and rivers is directly linked to the dumping of foreign ballast water in the Great Lakes. The spread of zebra mussels has been in the news since the first infestations were discovered back in the late 1980s in Lake St. Clair, Michigan. Zebra mussels have now spread to 28 of the U.S. states, much of Southern Canada and the Gulf of Mexico.

Zebra mussels filter water, up to a liter per day, to eat plankton. Since the zebra mussels eat a lot of plankton, they compete with other fish for food and upset the natural ecological balance when they are introduced into new environments.

Zebra mussels clog pipes by forming colonies inside of the pipes. The clogs prevent proper water flow through the pipes and can cause damage and costly repairs. These mussel clogs are a fiscal burden for municipalities and industries.

Zebra mussels cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1 billion annually. They foul boat hulls, motors and almost all water-related equipment. They have sharp shells which can cut feet, ruin beaches and affect the recreation and tourism economy.

Keeping zebra mussels in check is a taxing proposal for state and local governments; however, there is no choice but to deal with the problem head-on. Hopefully, this new federal legislation will provide much-needed protections to address the issues presented by the unchecked discharge of ballast water and help to prevent new invasive and dangerous species from being introduced into waterways.