In Response: Proposed Ballast Law Won’t Protect Our Waters


By Dave Zentner


A column Sunday in the News Tribune advocated in favor of legislation known as the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA (“Set uniform federal standard on ballast for shippers to protect U.S. waterways”).

The opinion piece by the executive director of the Duluth Port Authority, Vanta Coda, cited the need for clarity and consistency in ballast-water regulation.  Further, it stated Coda’s belief that VIDA will protect our precious waters.

That all sounds good.  So why do 29 nonprofit conservation organizations oppose VIDA?

Here’s a short list of the concerns.

The act contains an “enforcement loophole” that reads, If a ship fails to exchange its waters before entering the Great Lakes or fails to meet EPA’s existing or future standard, the ship is completely excused if the discharge is claimed to be “accidental.”  This is unique in environmental law.  The U.S. Coast Guard does not observe ships releasing ballast water.  It almost entirely relies on checking vessel logs.  Under this provision, these logs now could have two or three boilerplate sentences claiming any illegal discharge was “an accident.”

That is not acceptable.

The act also specifies a “geographically limited area.”  This section removes all regulations for ships that travel only in the Great Lakes.

Further, VIDA would exempt ballast-water discharges from the Clean Water Act, which requires the use of the best available technology.

The act’s “update frequency” section specifies updating standards every 10 years instead of every five years.  No rationale is offered for why this industry deserves special treatment.

An “indefinite grandfathering” section appears to exempt older vessels from updating their treatment technology as long as they meet the original ballast-water standard.  Every other industry must comply with improvements in treatment-technology standards.

If you add up the above, and then realize this is just a short list, it becomes very hard to accept VIDA as equal to the task of protecting our waters from aquatic invaders.

Of great concern to me is that VIDA would prevent state and federal agencies from a role in protecting their resources.

I would agree with Coda that a level playing field is a good goal.  Consistency has value. That was the goal in 1972 when Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which does require a level playing field in all 50 states and a minimum standard to protect our waters.  Yet the Clean Water Act still allows states to enact stricter standards if they’re able to make a science-based demonstration that the higher standard is necessary to protect a particular resource. Making such a case has to be through an open and accessible public process the enables citizen and industry participation.

Since 1972, states have not utilized provisions in the Clean Water Act to create additional burdensome and confusing regulations.  In the case of aquatic invaders like zebra mussels, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York did enact their own ballast-water regulations because of the lack of protections provided by the Coast Guard.  Congress directed the Coast Guard in 1990 and again in 1996 to act to protect our waters.  It is now 2016.  The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the cost to manage aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes at $200 million annually.  If you attempt to add ecosystem damage, the cost is much higher.

Coda’s article represented the shipping industry as defenders of our water resources.  The record speaks to the contrary.

Going forward, I would like to work with the shipping industry in truly effective strategies to eliminate new invaders.  We’ve made some key progress with ballast-water exchange prior to entering the Great Lakes and with recently passed legislation.  Large gaps remain, however, and it will be years before the gaps in coverage are anywhere near acceptable.

Meanwhile, all recreational boaters are expected to prevent the spread of invasives — while large ships plying our Great Lakes remain exempt.  That is not a level playing field.

I love the ships that come to our ports.  Many of our community members are employed in the important economic work of our port and the shipping industry.  However, the unwelcome visitors that sometimes have accompanied those ships are the responsibility of the shippers. One resource user must not be allowed to impair the value of that resource for others who depend upon the very same resource for their needs.

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Source: Duluth News Tribune