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Minnesota takes lead in effort to stop invasive species

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota jumped to the lead among Great Lakes states Tuesday night in the battle against invasive species with new rules regulating ballast water.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's citizens board voted 6-0 to require all ships releasing ballast water in Minnesota waters of Lake Superior to first treat that water starting in 2016.

The new regulations are the toughest on the Great Lakes and among the strongest in the nation demanding ships take action so invasive species are less likely to hitchhike in ballast tanks.

The regulations require owners and operators of all ships longer than 150 feet that carry ballast to immediately apply for permits, begin keeping track of and reporting all ballast water discharges, and figure out a plan to eliminate the threat of invasive species being moved from distant ports into Duluth, Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

The new rule then phases in the requirement to treat ballast, giving ship owners up to eight years to bring their craft into dry dock to be retrofitted with treatment technology. Any new ships will need to treat ballast starting in 2012.

Of the 180 foreign species in the Great Lakes, scientists say about half likely got here by riding in ships' ballast tanks. Some of those species, such as quagga mussels, are costing millions of dollars to control and are threatening native ecosystems. One species, the VHS virus, is killing large numbers of fish.

Supporters say the regulations are long overdue but that the state is giving the industry too much time, and asked the PCA for tougher disinfection standards and to speed up requirements to treat ballast.

"This industry has had a free pass on the Clean Water Act for about 30 years,'' John Lenczewski, a volunteer for Trout Unlimited, told the board in support of strong ballast regulation.

But critics say the state is regulating where it doesn't belong, saying it's the federal government that should impose ballast regulations to keep standard shipping laws across all U.S. ports.

They note that, unless Wisconsin adopts similar regulations, Minnesota's rules won't protect the shared waters of the Twin Ports.

"We believe this action is a train wreck that's been a long time coming. A train wreck in that it should be a single federal action and not a list of multiple state regulations," Jim Sharrow, facilities manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, told the board.

"The elephant in the corner of the room here is that this really isn't going to protect Minnesota waters until Wisconsin and Canada and Michigan all adopt standards," he added.

Congress has several ballast regulation plans in play, but so far none have passed into law. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a ballast regulation that requires no treatment of water released.

PCA Commissioner Brad Moore said he hopes the state's action spurs a strong, single federal rule on ballast that renders the state's move unnecessary.

"It seems as if the only thing that spurs federal action is a crisis or some leadership by the states," Moore said. "I believe that if we pass this we're building a bridge to get federal action going."

Minnesota becomes the first state to regulate ballast in both saltwater ships and Great Lakes ships that don't enter oceans. California is the only other state with strict ballast treatment standards.

Michigan requires some saltwater ships to treat ballast, but none that meet the requirement have entered a Michigan port.