Environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have reached a deal requiring tougher federal regulations for ships that dump ballast water in U.S. harbors, a leading way in which invasive species are spread.
Cargo ships often carry millions of gallons of water and sediments in ballast tanks to help keep vessels upright in rough seas. Ballast water teems with fish, bacteria and other organisms that are 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 damage and economic losses.
EPA issued a 2008 permit requiring shippers to exchange their ballast water at sea or, if the tanks were empty, rinse them with salt water before entering U.S. territory. About a dozen environmental groups sued, contending the requirement was too weak and violated the federal Clean Water Act.
Under the settlement announced Tuesday, EPA will issue a new industry-wide permit limiting the number of live organisms in ballast water _ a step that will require shippers to install sterilization equipment. The rule will apply to commercial ships over 79 feet long, exempting recreational and military craft.
The agency will release a draft for public comment by Nov. 30 and a final version within a year from then. It would give the industry an extra year to equip their vessels.
"With aquatic invasions occurring all over the country, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lakes to San Francisco Bay, this action is long overdue," said Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
EPA said in a statement the agreement would boost its efforts "to combat invasive species that threaten coastal communities that rely on our nation's waterways for fisheries, transportation and water-based recreation and tourism."
The U.S. Coast Guard also is developing regulations limiting the number of live organisms in ballast water, which are expected to be released by the end of April. At least a dozen states have rules or laws dealing with ballast water.
Shipping companies fought such rules for years, contending there wasn't adequate technology to rid ballast water of live organisms. But as researchers have refined sanitation methods such as ultraviolet light, chemical treatments, filtration and oxygen depletion, industry groups have said they could deal with federal standards if they weren't too strict.
The settlement does not specify what EPA's standards will be, but environmentalists say any of the new methods will be an improvement over simply replacing ballast water at sea or swishing tanks with salt water.
The standards will be based on findings from two scientific studies due by May 31. One looks at which water treatment technologies are available and how well they work. Requiring that ballast water be completely sterile is considered unrealistic, so the second study will suggest ways to decide how many live organisms are acceptable in a certain amount of water.
The Coast Guard's proposed regulations would adopt limits suggested by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency. Most of the Great Lakes states have done likewise. But New York's standard, due to take effect in August 2013, is 100 times more stringent.
Shippers believe they could meet the international standards with some of the recently developed methods, said Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association. But the Coast Guard has yet to approve the technology and the companies cannot install the equipment until it does, he said.
"They must certify that not only will it comply with ballast water discharge requirements, but also that it's safe, it will not blow up and endanger the crew," Fisher said.
The state of Michigan, which prohibits vessels from discharging ballast at its ports unless they have approved treatment systems, also sued EPA and said Tuesday they had reached a deal nearly identical to the one between the agency and the environmental coalition.
"This agreement moves the EPA forward to more effective methods that will protect our Great Lakes and the jobs that depend on them," state Attorney General Bill Schuette said.