TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — An environmental group said Wednesday it has sued the federal government, contending that recently established regulations for ships to treat ballast water before releasing it into U.S. waterways aren't strong enough to prevent more aquatic species invasions.
The National Wildlife Federation's lawsuit asks a federal appeals court to rule that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to meet Clean Water Act requirements with a permit issued in April that applies to an estimated 60,000 vessels longer than 79 feet. It requires them to install some type of technology — such as ultraviolet light or chemical treatment devices — that would kill at least some organisms in ballast water.
"This weak permit leaves the door open for future harm to our environment and economy," said Marc Smith, senior policy manager for the federation.
An EPA spokeswoman referred a request for comment to the U.S. Department of Justice, which also declined to comment.
Ships are equipped with tanks that can hold millions of gallons of water, providing stability in rough seas. But the brew of water, sediment and seaweed sucked into the tanks while vessels are in port can contain fish, mussels and other critters that are hauled to distant harbors and released. Some of the newcomers have no natural predators in their new environments, allowing them to multiply rapidly, out-compete native species for food and habitat, spread disease and destabilize ecosystems.
At least 185 aquatic invaders have reached the Great Lakes, mostly in ballast water, experts say. Among the most notorious are zebra and quagga mussels, which have done untold millions of dollars in damage and spread all the way to California, clogging pipes at power and wastewater treatment plants. They're also believed at least partly responsible for growth of harmful algae, die-offs of loons and other shore birds and declines of some types of fish.
The EPA permit puts ceilings on the concentration of organisms in ballast water using standards proposed by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, and adopted by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2012. Additionally, transoceanic commercial vessels are required to exchange their ballast water 200 miles from the U.S. shoreline or rinse their tanks if empty, in hopes that the salty water would kill any freshwater organisms left behind.
But critics say the international levels won't do the job. Some states, including Michigan, have adopted their own rules. New York was preparing to impose one of the nation's toughest policies — requiring ballast water treatment at least 100 times more stringent than the international standard — before backing away last year. The National Wildlife Federation has sued the state for that decision.
The shipping industry says no existing technology could filter or disinfect the water to those higher levels.
Smith said the suit against EPA, filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, doesn't advocate a particular cleanliness standard but asks the permit be declared noncompliant with federal water quality requirements. That could reopen negotiations leading to stronger rules, he said.
The group also is unhappy about a compliance schedule that would allow some vessels to delay installing the new equipment for many years, Smith said.