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Environmentalists threaten suit over ballast rule (UPDATE)

AP Environmental Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Environmental groups said Tuesday they might file another lawsuit in their long-running battle with the federal government over ballast water discharges from cargo ships blamed for spreading invasive species in the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters.

Representatives of five organizations issued the warning on the final day of a public comment period on a regulation the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last fall. It would require commercial vessels to install technology strong enough to kill at least some of the fish, mussels and even microorganisms such as viruses that lurk in ballast water before it’s dumped into harbors after ships arrive in port. Ballast water helps keep ships upright in rough seas.

The rule is based on standards recommended by the International Maritime Organization that the shipping industry says are achievable. Environmentalists say they are inadequate. They contend water cleanliness standards 100 to 1,000 times as strong are needed to prevent more attacks by invaders such as zebra and quagga mussels, which have seriously damaged Great Lakes ecosystems and cost an estimated $200 million a year for damage repairs and control measures.

“Invasive species are living pollution,” said Thom Cmar, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council. “If they can find each other and breed and multiply after they are dumped into a lake or coastal area, then it doesn’t matter how few organisms were put there by the vessels in the first place.”

Some states have their own ballast water requirements. In New York, rules scheduled to take effect in 2013 would set live-organism limits 100 times stronger than the international ones, while California is phasing in standards 1,000 times tougher.

Shipping groups say technology to meet those standards doesn’t exist. A report issued last year by EPA’s Science Advisory Board agreed. The industry contends if New York proceeds with its rule, international shipping will grind to a halt in the Great Lakes region because vessels must go through New York waters to reach the lakes.

The American Great Lakes Ports Association, which represents public port authorities on the U.S. side of the lakes, supports EPA’s proposal but believes shipping companies should get more time to install ballast treatment equipment than the rule would allow, Executive Director Steve Fisher said.

Environmentalists say the timeline is already too lenient.

“You can only ask the shipping companies to do what is possible,” Fisher said. “The longer we keep debating what these rules are going to be, the longer no one does anything. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

Environmentalists say the same methods used to treat municipal drinking water, such as chlorination, filtration and heat, could achieve the results they want.

They have sued the EPA three times to force action on the ballast water issue and may do so again if the agency adopts its rule as proposed, Cmar said.

The EPA is scheduled to make a final decision by November. The agency did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

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