Coast Guard seeking ideas on regulations of ships' ballast water

Posted: Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Editor's note: This is the second of two stories about invasive sea species brought to Kenai Peninsula waters through the ballast water of ships.

The United States is being quietly invaded.

The very real potential for disastrous impacts to the nation's economy is lurking unseen in the deep recesses of the holds of ships -- a fleet both foreign and domestic that makes tens of thousands of calls a year on American ports.

They are called nuisance invasive species, critters of all kinds that hitchhike to U.S. ports in the millions of tons of ballast water vessels use to maintain stability at sea.

Often unchecked, that weight of ballast is flushed into bays and harbors as the tonnage of cargo is lifted aboard. With it go the fauna and flora of foreign shores, some potentially hazardous to domestic creatures, some capable of gumming up the works of humans.

Concern over invasive species and their potential for damage became acute in the 1980s. To prevent and control infestations, Congress enacted the Nonindi-genous Aquatic Nuisance Preven-tion and Control Act of 1990 and the National Invasive Species Act of 1996.

The laws, however, only made ballast-water reporting and management programs mandatory for the Great Lakes, and later for the Hudson River in New York north of the George Washington Bridge.

Elsewhere, a voluntary reporting program was established that carried no penalty for noncompliance. Thinking ahead, however, Congress also directed the Secre-tary of Transportation to assess and report on the effectiveness of the voluntary reporting program.

In a 2001 Coast Guard report to Congress, the Aquatic Nuisance Task Force said poor compliance by shippers had made it impossible to accurately assess the efficacy of the voluntary guidelines in reducing the invasion of aquatic nuisance species.

In fact, the task force said, "Only 30.4 percent of regulated ships submitted reports during the first 24 months that reporting requirements were in effect."

That compared to 100 percent reporting from regulated ships in the Great Lakes, 93 percent of which performed the necessary level of active ballast-water management prior to their arrival. The other 7 percent were required to take appropriate action.

To make them effective, the guidelines would need to achieve a level of compliance rivaling that of the mandatory Great Lakes program, the task force said.

Under the terms of the National Invasive Species Act, the Secretary of Transportation now is required to issue regulations turning the voluntary program into a mandatory one and see to it that its provisions are enforced. The Coast Guard is taking public comments on the proposed regulatory changes, which could go into effect by next fall.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security are working on several projects related to the invasive species problem.

One addresses the Coast Guard's ability to impose penalties under NISA for ships failing to submit ballast water management reports. Penalties could include $25,000-per-day civil fines and Class C felony charges for knowingly violating provisions of the law.

Another project is establishing a standard for evaluating the discharge from ballast water treatment systems.

A third is to encourage installation and testing of ballast water treatment technologies on board vessels. The Coast Guard is drafting an interim rule to establish a program through which vessel owners could apply for approval of experimental on-board treatment systems.

Proposed amendments to the two federal acts would expand the number of vessels to be regulated by requiring a ballast-water management program for all vessels equipped with ballast-water tanks entering any U.S. waters from outside the country's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Such vessels would be required to employ at least one of the following practices, according to the Coast Guard:

n Perform a complete ballast-water exchange beyond 200 nautical miles from any shore;

n Retain ballast water onboard the vessel;

n Prior to entering U.S. waters, use an alternative, environmentally sound method of ballast-water management approved by the Coast Guard;

n Discharge ballast water to an approved reception facility.

The common practice is the at-sea ballast exchange -- flushing out ballast taken on in a foreign port and taking on seawater presumably containing fewer creatures, or at least species less likely to survive in coastal waters.

That practice is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Alternative ballast-management methods are still in the development stages, and the number of on-shore reception facilities is limited.

Meanwhile, other rule changes would require that even vessels moving between domestic U.S. ports perform appropriate record keeping and reporting.

"We are trying to protect the environment," said Bivan Pat-naik, aquatic nuisance species regulatory coordinator with the U.S. Coast Guard's Environmen-tal Standards Division. Beyond that, there's the economic imperative, he said.

"Invasive species are causing billions of dollars in damages," he said.

If the rule changes are adopted, the Coast Guard would begin enforcing ballast-water reporting and mandatory ballast-water management program requirements on all vessels having such systems entering all U.S. water from beyond the EEZ.

That could even impact some fishing vessels coming to Alaska from Outside. They would be required to meet the provisions on any voyage that took them beyond the EEZ, Patnaik said.

Oil tankers coming from beyond the EEZ also would be required to file mandatory reports, as well as adopt one of the methods of ballast water management.

The current rules exempt oil tankers moving between U.S. ports from reporting rules, Patnaik said.

The new rules would not alter that. Nor would they apply to Department of Defense or Coast Guard vessels or vessels operating solely within one "Captain of the Port" zone. (Cook Inlet is in the Anchorage Captain of the Port zone; Valdez is another zone).

But some U.S. ports where ballast water may be taken on by ships engaged in domestic trade are highly contaminated with foreign species. Invasive creatures could easily be transported to other U.S. ports on ships that might never sail beyond the EEZ.

San Francisco Bay may be the poster child of such ports.

One 1998 study cited by the Coast Guard in the July 30 Federal Register found that in the San Francisco Bay and Delta, invasions increased from one new species every 55 weeks (between 1851 and 1960) to one new species every 14 weeks (between 1961 and 1995).

That study, written by scientists Andrew Cohen and James Carlton, said the bay and delta "may be the most invaded estuary and possibly the most invaded aquatic ecosystem in the world."

"Right now, there are several holes (in the law) in preventing invasive species from moving from one U.S. port to another," Patnaik said.

The issue remains "on the table," he added.

The Coast Guard said it has no national estimate of the rate of invasion, but figures an invasion occurs somewhere in the Untied States about twice every three weeks.

Quantifying the monetary costs of the damage caused by invasive species is difficult at best. Some critters may impose significant damage, while others cause subtle changes to ecosystems. Others may prove relatively benign, the Coast Guard said.

The zebra mussel is one animal that has wreaked havoc in the Great Lakes, mostly by fouling water intake mechanisms. It is estimated that between 1989 and 1994, the mussel caused $120 million in damages.

Another study estimated the mussel damage as high as $1 billion cumulatively between 1989 and 2000.

Other national studies point to other species and their associated costs, such as the Asian clam ($1 billion per year), and the European green crab ($44 million per year).

Eight federal agencies sitting on the Invasive Species Council collectively spent $514 million in 1999 and $631 million in 2000 on the control and management of nuisance invasive species, according to U.S. General Accounting Office figures cited in the Federal Regis-ter.

Coast Guard analysts said they have not attempted to quantify the monetary benefits of making ballast-water management mandatory for all vessels. But avoiding just one such destructive invasion over the course of several decades would likely justify the costs of implementation.

An estimated 7,420 vessels will be affected by the mandatory ballast-management requirements, and some 11,500 ballast-water exchanges would be performed each year at a cost of approximately $15.8 million, the Coast Guard said.

As for the broadened reporting requirements, data from the Coast Guard, U.S Customs Service and the U.S. Maritime Administration show about 70,000 arrivals in U.S. ports annually. About 50,000 have foreign ports of origin and are required to make reports.

Under the proposed rule change, the 20,000 arrivals from domestic ports also would be required to submit ballast-water reports at an estimated cost of $467,000 annually, the Coast Guard said.

The benefit would be a marked increase in the amount and quality of ballast water information, which could lead to appropriate action to combat invasive species, the Coast Guard said.

Some question whether the proposed rule changes go far enough.

Bob Pierkowski is the invasive species program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is putting together the state's new Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan, which is funded through a federal grant and was approved by former Gov. Tony Knowles and supported by Gov. Frank Murkowski.

"The new rules do not go far enough," Pierkowski said, because they won't apply across the board.

"Ballast water is a significant source of aquatic nuisance species, which can cause great economic and social harm to the communities surrounding the dump sites. It should be the goal to prevent aquatic nuisance species invasions with either ballast treatment or exchange."

Recent Alaska surveys have set traps in an attempt to capture a species of green crab that has invaded ports in the Lower 48.

So far, Pierkowski said, none have been found, but the creature is a concern because it is moving north and tests have shown it could survive in Alaska's cold waters. It could be a threat to indigenous Alaska crab species.

Pierkowski noted that even ballast exchange is imperfect.

"You can never take out the last 100 tons or so of ballast," he said. Adding seawater from the mid-ocean may only stir up the accumulated sediments and not kill off all life forms.

"We have really accomplished very little with the new regulations," he said. "Our ecosystems are very important and we must preserve them for future generations."

Unlike some other states, Alaska is not developing its own regional ballast-water control rules, but it may want to consider that move in the future, said Nancy Sonafrank, water quality standards coordinator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

"We are not as far along as some states, but that doesn't mean we aren't doing anything,' she said.

ADEC is readying comments for the Coast Guard on its new rules.

Marilyn Leland, deputy director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, said current law provides no ability to write regulations covering tanker traffic going between Valdez and other U.S. ports. The proposed new rules won't provide any either.

She would like to see that changed.

RCAC officials have asked that the exemption be dropped in the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act of 2003, now being considered by Congress.

As a U.S. senator, Gov. Murkow-ski was instrumental in getting funding for Alaska and Washington to study the problems associated with the escape of Atlantic salmon from British Columbia salmon-farming operations.

In a recent opinion piece, the governor's daughter, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said she strongly supports continuing efforts to develop technologies and practices to meet the challenge.

"The problem of aquatic invasive species is not being ignored, and the government's obligation to address it will not be overlooked," she said.

Studies have shown that Alaska is not immune to the invasion. Perhaps owing to the latitude's long, dark winters when food is less plentiful, the pace of that invasion is simply slower, scientists say.

So far, at least, the species that have invaded Alaska haven't created much economic impact, said Anson Hines, a researcher with the Smithsonian Environmental Re-search Center, who has been studying the issue in Alaska.

But it would only take one aggressive competitor to do serious economic damage, he said.

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