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Court Acts to Halt Dumping Invasive Species in U.S. Waters

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 4, 2005 (ENS) - Ship ballast water can no longer be dumped in U.S. ports without a permit, a federal judge in California has ruled. Invasive species - such as zebra mussels and Chinese mitten crabs - hitchhike in the ballast water of ships entering U.S. ports from around the world. The exotic aquatic plants and animals enter U.S. waters when the ships discharge water taken on as ballast to adjust their weight when cargo is loaded.

In a lawsuit brought by environmental groups concerned about the release of invasive species into U.S. wasters, Judge Susan Illston ruled Thursday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must repeal a regulation exempting ships that discharge ballast water from the permit requirements of the Clean Water Act.

Judge Illston found that the EPA "acted in excess of its statutory authority" by exempting ballast water discharges from the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems (NPDES) permit program. "EPA did not have authority to exclude categories of point sources from NPDES permit program," the judge wrote.


Ship discharges ballast water that may have invasive aquatic species from across the globe. (Photo courtesy NBIC)
Plaintiff groups - Northwest Environmental Advocates, the Ocean Conservancy, and Waterkeepers Northern California and its projects Center for Marine Conservation and San Francisco Baykeeper and Deltakeeper - were pleased with the ruling in their longstanding case against the federal agency.

"Over 30 years ago EPA made a grave error in failing to regulate the indiscriminate dumping of invasive species along the nation's coasts and the Great Lakes, an error it compounded when it refused to grant our petition over six years ago," said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates based in Portland, Oregon.

Environmental groups first petitioned EPA to regulate ships' ballast water discharges in 1999 because ballast water is the nation's largest source of aquatic invasive species. After having been forced through an initial lawsuit to answer the groups' petition, the EPA denied it in September 2003,

"Today we're extremely gratified by the court's ruling, which brings the requirements of the Clean Water Act to bear on preventing new invasions. It's a shame that EPA requires a court order to comply with federal law," Bell said.

The Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford University and Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, represent the three organizations.

"This is a decisive legal victory," said Deborah Sivas, director of the Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford said. "It will provide protection against invasive species in hundreds of bays, rivers and streams throughout the country and in our coastal waterways."

A tanker ship in the Great Lakes can contain as much as 14 million gallons of ballast water, which would be discharged at port when the ship takes on cargo. Seagoing tankers can have double the amount of ballast water. The amount of ballast water discharged in this country’s waters exceeds 21 billion gallons each year.

The EPA did not respond to calls for comment. The agency states on its website that the introduction of invasive species through ship ballast water is "a major concern."

"All mainland coasts of the United States – East, West, Gulf, and Great Lakes, as well as the coastal waters of Alaska, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands – have felt the effects of successful aquatic species invasions," the agency website states.


The Chinese mitten crab may have been illegally introduced to San Francisco Bay in 1992-94 as a food resource. It burrows into and weakens dikes and levees and is a host to the oriental lung fluke, a human parasite. (Photo courtesy USGS)
"Over two-thirds of recent non-native species introductions in marine and coastal areas are likely due to ship-borne vectors, and ballast water transport and discharge is the most universal and ubiquitous of these. EPA is working in conjunction with our Federal and State partners to address this source of aquatic invasive species both domestically and internationally," the agency states.

Sarah Newkirk, clean oceans advocate for The Ocean Conservancy said, "Invasive species carried in ships' ballast water have measurable impacts to businesses, taxpayers and the environment. They harm commercial fishing and shellfishing, clog the intake pipes of power plants and drinking water treatment facilities, destroy habitats and push threatened species to the edge of extinction."

"It's high time EPA placed the burden of controlling invasive species on those who create the problem," Newkirk said.

In her ruling Judge Illston cited a study by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which said “more than 10,000 marine species each day hitch rides around the globe in the ballast water of cargo ships.”

"Invasive species transported by ballast water have taken over wetland habitats, and deprived waterfowl and other species of food sources," the GAO report says.

There are many invasive aquatic species in the San Francisco Bay and San Joaquin Delta, the largest estuary system on the U.S. west coast and one of the world's busiest international ports.

"The Bay-Delta estuary is a poster child for the harm caused by invasive species carried in ballast water. It is the most invaded estuary in North America and possibly the world," said Leo O'Brien, executive director of Baykeeper.

"The invaders like the Asian clam, the green crab, and the Chinese mitten crab now dominate the native species and it's getting worse: on average a new species establishes itself in the Bay every 14 weeks," said O'Brien. "Hopefully the tide is now turning."


Map shows distribution of zebra mussels - the red dots are sightings, the yellow stars are locations the mussels were trailered to overland on boat hulls. U.S. Geological Survey map published April 1, 2005. (Map courtesy USGS)
Zebra mussels have become a widespread aquatic invasive species throughout the eastern United States since they arrived in the Great Lakes from the Caspian Sea in ships’ ballast water around 1988. The tiny, fast growing striped mussels have clogged the water pipes of electric companies and other industries.

The costs of zebra mussel proliferation are now more than $3 billion per decade, according to 2002 estimates by the General Accountability Office.

 Quote of Note
"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
-- Aldo Leopold, American environmentalist and author

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