Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has begun weighing whether to uphold the state's ship ballast water regulations that are designed to keep invasive species out of Lake Superior. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has challenged the regulations because advocates think they are too lax and are taking too much time to implement. The regulations approved last fall by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency require by 2016 that all ships treat their ballast water before dumping it into the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior. New ships must comply starting in 2012. The rules also limit the number of organisms that new treatment systems can discharge as ships prepare to take on loads of taconite and other commodities at the Duluth port. Minnesota is one of several Great Lakes states that have decided to start regulating ballast water discharge, which is widely believed to be the main culprit in introducing hundreds of nonnative fish and other aquatic life to the lakes. Invasive species such as zebra mussels and sea lampreys disrupt the Great Lakes ecosystem and spread disease. Studies have shown they cost the regional economy billions of dollars. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has also started regulating the ballast water of oceangoing ships for the first time under the Clean Water Act, though many of the states' standards are more stringent. In oral arguments before a three-judge appeals panel, attorney Matt Norton of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said Minnesota's rules should be rejected. The fact that new organisms could still legally be dumped into Minnesota waters means there's no guarantee that Lake Superior's current water quality will be preserved, he said.Unlike other pollutants whose effects are diluted when entering the lakes, Norton told the judges that invasive species can multiply and spread. That means any one species could wreak havoc on the lake with or without the new regulations, he said. The rules fail “to ensure and preserve existing water quality,” Norton said. In defending the MPCA's rules, Assistant Attorney General Robert Roche told the panel there's no question the new ballast regulations will improve Lake Superior, because there's currently no Minnesota rules on ships that discharge water into the lake. He described the rules as the most stringent “technologically achievable” regulations possible and said reducing the number of allowed organisms to zero wouldn't have the desired effect. “The technology, even to meet the (MPCA) standard, is still being developed,” Roche said. “There's no point in setting a lower number simply because it's lower.” As for the timeline, Roche said officials considered both the technology the available dry dock space for installing new treatment technology when deciding to give ships time to meet the standards. Roche urged the Court of Appeals to uphold the rules, saying an opposite ruling would only cause more delay. The panel has 90 days to rule on the ballast regulations.