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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Recent Senate Legislation Threatens Great Lakes

In mid-April of this year, the United States Senate voted on a piece of legislation that would have removed the Environmental Protection Agency from managing ballast water discharge from freighters. Instead, management would be transferred completely to the Coast Guard. After days of immense pressure from conservationists, the measure was narrowly defeated. Was this a win for the conservation of the Great Lakes?

It was a small one, and to understand why conservationists are still concerned, it’s important to understand the damage ballast water has already caused. As defined by the Environment Protection Agency, ballast water is water that is taken up or discharged when cargo is unloaded or loaded, in order to maintain the ship’s stability and balance. Freighters traveling across the Atlantic pick up whole ecosystems when they take up ballast water, and the organisms subsequently dumped in the lakes can be a menace. Two such organisms, the quagga and zebra mussels, have been sucking the life out of the Great Lakes for over a decade. These organisms, which attach to hard surfaces like the iron infrastructure of industry, can cause up to $1 billion of damage per year, according to a 2010 report.

Photo: Kilian Fichou, AFP/Getty Images

Simply put, these invasive species are bad news, both in terms of industry and conservation. So why would the Senate try to roll back regulations that would curb the introduction of other invasive species?

Dan Egan reported on this issue extensively for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In an article released shortly after the Senate vote, Egan describes the conflict between the shipping industry, conservationists, and the government, saying, “Shipping industry advocates have been pushing for the change for years, arguing that the existing ballast water management program is too complicated…The problem, according to the conservation groups, is that the Coast Guard is ill-suited to manage this form of biological pollution and cannot compel the shipping industry to limit its discharges under the authority of the Clean Water Act, which is administered by the EPA.” A review of the measure is set for 2022, and until then, conservationists will continually advocate for regulations on ballast water discharge in the hopes of protecting the Great Lakes ecosystems.

Michala Roberts
Graduate Assistant, Go Big Read