TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A federal appeals court has refused to prohibit
states from being tougher than the federal government on ships that
discharge ballast water, a leading culprit in the spread of invasive species
such as zebra and quagga mussels in U.S. coastal waterways and the Great
The ruling by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., escalates a
battle between the shipping industry, regulators and environmentalists over
dumping ballast water and other substances from vessels. Legislation pending
in Congress would strip funding for any Environmental Protection Agency
programs from states whose rules exceed those on the federal level.
Cargo ships often carry millions of gallons of water and sediments in
ballast tanks to help keep vessels upright in rough seas. The soupy mixtures
teem with fish, bacteria and other organisms released as freight is taken on
in port. Many of the foreign species spread rapidly, starve out native
competitors and upset the ecological balance. Invaders such as zebra mussels
cause billions of dollars each year in economic losses.
The EPA issued a permit regulating ship discharges in 2008. It incorporates
at least 100 provisions tacked on by more than a dozen states with their own
policies — some more stringent than the EPA’s.
Groups representing shipping companies and ports asked the federal appeals
court to strip the state-specific rules from the permit, saying they were
creating a regulatory hodgepodge. But in its ruling Friday, the court said
the federal Clean Water Act allows states to protect their waters.
“EPA is pleased that the court upheld the agency’s common-sense step to
protect water quality in communities across the country,” agency spokesman
Brendan Gilfillan said Monday.
Thom Cmar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, described the
ruling as “a states’ rights decision.”
“We agree the ideal situation would be a strong national standard for
ballast water to prevent introduction of invasive species,” Cmar said. “But
the federal government hasn’t created that standard, so the states had to
The American Waterways Operators, a trade group representing owners and
operators of tugboats, towboats and barges, said Congress should amend the
Clean Water Act to require a uniform nationwide policy.
“A tow moving from Pittsburgh to New Orleans travels through the waters of
11 states,” said Jennifer Carpenter, the group’s senior vice president. “The
court decision implies that even if those 11 states impose conflicting,
overlapping or infeasible conditions applicable while the tow is in their
waters, and even if EPA knows that those conditions are unworkable, the
agency has no authority ... to reject or modify the state conditions.”
The U.S. Coast Guard has promised to release long-awaited ballast discharge
rules this year. The EPA is updating its permit under a settlement with
environmental groups that claimed in a lawsuit it was too weak. The 2008
permit required shippers to exchange their ballast water at sea or rinse the
tanks with salt water before entering U.S. territory. The new version will
limit the number of live organisms in ballast water, a step that will
require shippers to install sterilization equipment.
This month, the U.S. House amended a spending bill to deny EPA funds to any
state that goes beyond the federal ballast standards.
Industry is particularly unhappy about New York standards that set
live-organism limits 100 times tougher for existing ships than those in an
early draft of the Coast Guard rules. For newly built ships, New York’s
standards would be 1,000 times stronger. State officials have postponed the
requirement’s effective date to 2013, giving shippers more time to comply.
Patricia Birkholz, a former Republican state senator who now directs
Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, said the states imposed their own
rules because federal agencies and the industry dragged their feet for
“To punish states for doing what we think and know is the right thing is not
the way to go,” said Birkholz, who sponsored Michigan’s ballast water