Ballast water is taken on by cargo ships to compensate for changes in the ship's weight as cargo is loaded or unloaded, and as fuel and supplies are consumed.
When a ship takes on ballast water, organisms native to that water are also taken on board. When that ballast water is discharged into another body of water, those organisms are released, often harming the native species of the new ecosystem.
"Today's court decision is an important victory in the ongoing saga to protect our majestic Great Lakes from invasive species," said Marc Smith, policy manager with National Wildlife Federation, which intervened in the case on the side of New York State.
Cargo vessel in the Port of Oswego (Photo courtesy Port of Oswego)
"Requiring the shipping industry to install effective protections against these invaders is long overdue. Now more than ever do we need aggressive federal action to help reinforce New York's leadership to ensure a more comprehensive defense policy against invasive species."
"The Great Lakes are under assault like never before. It's a battle being fought on many fronts, so it is gratifying to see New York taking the lead on what is perhaps the most damaging long-term invasive species entry point - ballast water from ships," said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Thom Cmar, who represented the NRDC and the National Wildlife Federation in the case.
A coalition of public corporations, shipping companies and others, including the Port of Oswego Authority and Lake Carriers' Association, challenged the New York Department of Environmental Conservation requirements imposed over and above national requirements imposed by the U.S. EPA.
New York requires that ships perform a ballast water exchange or a saltwater flush at least 50 nautical miles from shore in water at least 200 meters deep.
The state also requires existing vessels to install ballast water treatment systems to comply with those standards before January 1, 2012. The third condition sets forth more rigid standards for those discharges, which vessels constructed on or after January 1, 2013 will be required to meet.
The shipping industry argued that these conditions are "arbitrary and capricious and not legally permissible."
The Great Lakes are a unique ecosystem representing one-fifth of the Earth's surface fresh water, but the vitality of the ecosystem has been threatened by alien species that have wreaked havoc on native fish and plants.
Over 186 invasive species have been identified in the Great Lakes; since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, 65 percent of invasive species introductions have been attributed to ballast water.
Legal experts at Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation hail the win as a huge victory for states in the region that have taken an aggressive stand to limit dumping of water containing biological pollution from ocean going vessels. Alien species have already cost the Great Lakes economy billions of dollars.
"The toll has been breathtaking," the environmental groups said Thursday. "The entire Lake Michigan ecosystem has been changed by invasive species. The filtering of invasive mussels has, for the first time ever, allowed the lake floor to be carpeted with algae. These conditions have helped the invasive round goby become the most numerous fish in the lake, while all but eliminating many of the native species."
In the 1980's, invasions by the zebra mussel and sea lamprey harmed local drinking water infrastructure and fishing industries.
An earlier ruling of the federal appeals court in Cincinnati upheld Michigan's ballast water rules against a similar shipping industry challenge.
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