N.Y. environmental law may stymie Great Lakes shipping

N.Y. environmental law may stymie Great Lakes shipping
By JAY MILLER
4:30 am, January 3, 2011
Implementation is more than a year away, but the maritime industry is beginning to worry that a New York state environmental regulation could close the Great Lakes to international shipping and even curtail some intra-lake shipping.

“We’ll have to stop doing business in New York,” said Mark Barker, president of Interlake Steamship Co., whose nine ships carry cargo, principally grain, to New York ports such as Buffalo. “That (regulation) will affect my customers. They probably won’t be able to get low-cost marine transportation.”

Mr. Barker is referring to a rule promulgated by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation that sets what many in the maritime industry consider an impossibly high standard for the purity of the ballast water carried by ships. The goal of the regulation is to curtail the introduction of harmful non-native fish and other organisms that disrupt the ecological balance of the Great Lakes.

Interlake’s ships stay in the Great Lakes, but enforcement of the regulation would prevent passage into and out of the Great Lakes by any ship that doesn’t meet the standard, labor leaders, port directors and shippers say. Failure to meet the standard would prevent ships from entering New York waters; that includes locks that ocean- going vessels must transit on their way to and from the Great Lakes.

“It would just shut down shipping if it is enforced,” said William Friedman, president and CEO of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, who hopes New York will postpone enforcement or grant waivers to ships until they can meet the new standard.

“I don’t think we’ll see the rule as written enforced, but it has a chilling effect when we’re marketing the (Great Lakes) system to shippers,” Mr. Friedman said.

Mr. Barker said he is talking now to customers because they need considerable lead time if they must find alternative shipping arrangements at the beginning of 2012, when the regulation would take effect.

Battling the invaders
Recent amendments to the federal Clean Water Act allowed states to apply standards more stringent than the federal government. The New York rule says that, beginning Jan. 1, 2012, no ship can get a permit to travel through New York waters without onboard ballast water treatment technology that essentially can eliminate the discharge of invasive species.

An international treaty signed in 2004 by members of the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations affiliate with 169 member countries including the United States and Canada, set an international standard for the cleansing of ballast water.

A researcher from the Naval Research Laboratory in Key West, Fla., described the less restrictive IMO standard to members of the Great Lakes Ballast Water Collaborative at a meeting in May as “10 zooplankton in a cubic meter of water, which is comparable to finding 10 golf balls inside 27 Empire State Buildings.”

The New York standard is 100 times more stringent, the researcher said.

The regulation is tougher than those of other Great Lakes states and applies regardless of whether a ship stops at a New York port or discharges ballast water in the state. New York’s right to set a higher standard has survived several court challenges.

The regulation is supported by commercial fishermen and wildlife and environmental groups.

It is designed to keep foreign fish and other foreign marine life from invading the Great Lakes because they can crowd out native species and may carry disease. The intruders live in ballast water, which ships use to maintain stability. Water and the organisms that live in it are pumped into ballast tanks on ships in one port as cargo is offloaded and pumped out in the next port as cargo is taken on.

The Great Lakes have been plagued for decades by species that enter the lakes in ballast water; among them is the zebra mussel, a freshwater species native to Eurasia that arrived in the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The tiny bivalve has crowded out commercial and sport fish species throughout the Great Lakes and clogged water intake and filtering equipment.

A ‘ridiculous standard’
Though they’re sympathetic to the need to keep invading species out of the Great Lakes, shippers think New York has gone too far.“It’s not doable right now,” said Steven Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association in Washington, D.C. “It’s almost a ridiculous standard they are asking for.”

Mr. Fisher said the New York state standard is 100 times greater the standard set by International Maritime Organization and that no technology currently exists anywhere in the world that could achieve this goal.

Mr. Fisher said his organization, which represents the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority and other ports on the Great Lakes, is hiring a lobbyist in Albany to plead the industry’s case for suspending enforcement. In the meantime, he said, ship owners have applied for waivers from New York until the technology is available to meet the state’s standard.

The state has not yet responded to the waiver requests and a spokesman for its environmental conservation department told Crain’s by e-mail that his department won’t comment on the waiver requests.

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