Michigan's rigorous standards for treating ballast water in lake freighters shows the dangers of one state going it alone on a regional issue.
Most large vessels use ballast tanks filled with water as a balancing mechanism. Unfortunately, these tanks also provide convenient places for exotic species to hitch a ride from foreign waters into the Great Lakes basin.
A 2002 state law required all oceangoing vessels to self-police their practices for dumping ballast water - water used to stabilze the ship, taken onboard in one area and discharged in another. In 2008, the law was toughened, requiring all ships incoming from the Atlantic and docking in Michigan to show a permit proving techniques like filtration or chemical treatments were used on discharged water. Penalties for violation range up to $25,000.
The law hasn't solved a regional problem and, so far, no other states have followed Michigan's lead. So freighters can just choose to dock at Great Lakes ports in other, less tightly regulated, states.
Now, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, would lessen the state standards and allow ships to exchange freshwater ballast for saltwater ballast without additional treatment. That change would match national and international requirements.
Supporters of the bill argue that looser standards would support the state's shipping industry and allow more seafaring vessels to export Michigan cargo, but environmental activists and some legislators feel the lower standards would put the lakes at greater risk for invasives.
The stakes are high on both sides of the issue.
A recent industry-funded report showed cargo shipping in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River system supports 227,000 jobs and pumps billions into the economies of both the U.S. and Canada. But zebra and quagga mussels thought to have hitched rides in ballast tanks can clog intake pipes, destabilize the food web that supports game fish and promote runaway algae growth. The total economic impact of invasive species could be in the billions of dollars annually.
Federal regulations are in the works to require sterilization equipment on commercial ships. This may help unite a fragmented patchwork of state regulations and make it harder for invasive species to get into the waterways. Regulations requiring oceangoing ships to drain and rinse their ballast tanks at sea should help, too. But failing action on the federal level, Michigan can't go it alone.
By dropping the standard to fall in line with international rules, Michigan could cultivate commerce with a wider range of shipping companies and increase regional competitivenes.
The ideal solution to the ballast water problem would be to raise the standard for the entire region but, failing that, Michigan needs to get in sync with its neighbors.