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EPA agrees to strengthen ship ballast rules

March 8, 2011 |  6:11 pm

Cargo ship

The federal government has agreed to develop more stringent national regulations governing the discharge of ship ballast water, which has been a major source of troublesome invasive species in California and other states.

Under a settlement filed Tuesday in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Environmental Protection Agency will rewrite a permit system challenged by a coalition of environmental groups in a long-standing legal battle.

Large commercial ships use ballast water to maintain stability on long voyages, taking it on and  discharging it in coastal ports.

“This settlement represents the first time in 35 years that EPA has agreed to control discharges of ballast water from ships in the same way that other industries are controlled when they discharge pollution to the nation’s waters,” said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates.

Her group was one of the organizations that took EPA to court a decade ago to force the agency to regulate ballast dumping. When the agency adopted permit requirements in 2008, environmental groups sued again, challenging them as too weak.

Today's settlement lays out a timetable for the EPA to devise numeric limits for discharges of such things as plankton and microbes, which can establish populations of exotic species in port waters. “Whole ecosystems are transported from one part of the world to another,” said Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, also involved in the case.

The agency must issue a new permit by late next year, although it would not take effect until the current one expires in December 2013. The lag time is intended to give the maritime industry time to develop systems to treat the ballast before releasing it overboard.

California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has suffered from an onslaught of invasives that have moved into every level of the aquatic food chain, hurting native species and adding to the delta's myriad environmental problems. Many of those species got their delta start from ballast water dumped into nearby San Francisco Bay.

In 2006, the California legislature adopted what are considered the toughest ballast standards in the country. They take effect in phases, applying first to newly built vessels and to all existing vessels by 2016.

Before each stage takes effect, the state will assess whether the technology is available to meet the limits. Maurya Falkner, a program manager for the State Lands Commission, said her agency is evaluating a number of different treatment methods, including filtration with ultraviolet radiation, chlorination and deoxygenation.

-- Bettina Boxall

Credit: A cargo ship off the Port of Long Beach. Credit: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times