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Lawmakers propose ship inspections to stop exotic species

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Zebra mussels are just one of many invasive species that have entered the Great Lakes through ballast water dumped by oceangoing ships. Two state lawmakers propose such ships should be inspected before entering Minnesota waters. (Photo by Simon van Mechelen, University of Amsterdam, 1990)
Two legislators are proposing a bill to guard against invasive species hitchhiking in oceangoing ships on Lake Superior. The legislation would require big international ships that travel in Lake Superior to treat ballast water before dumping it into the lake. Ballast is the chief vehicle for the introduction and spread of invasive species such as zebra mussels.

St. Paul, Minn. — The legislation would require oceangoing ships arriving in Minnesota ports to prove they've adequately purged all invasive species from their ballast water. Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, says the bill is modeled after similar legislation in Michigan, set to take effect in 2007.

"The federal government has been slow to act. And there are a whole group of coalitions and organizations that focus on the Great Lakes. And one of the things many of us are trying to do is come up with some sort of coherence to approaches to the problems," says Rest.

Rep. Rick Hanson of South St. Paul is introducing the bill in the House.

Rest was also joined by state Attorney General Mike Hatch, a DFL candidate for governor. Hatch, who worked on lake barges, says the problem of invasive species introduced by ship ballast costs states billions of dollars.

"The problem is the water you picked up in Chicago will mix with the sludge you picked up in the Caspian Sea," Hatch says. "And as it gets discharges you end up with -- according to one report -- 179 different species, of which 40 percent to 50 percent of them came through ocean freighters."

The costs, Hatch says, comes from things like cleaning out intakes clogged with zebra mussels, and elaborate eradication efforts to fight the aggressive round goby fish.

The legislation would require all oceangoing ships to get a permit and be subject to inspections to show their ballast is free of non-native species. The permit would be enforced by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The legislation doesn't specify a method to kill the organisms.

The idea is not greeted warmly by the shipping industry. Charles Hilleran is owner of Guthrie Hubner, a shipping agent in Duluth that represents a majority of the 200 or so oceangoing ships on Lake Superior. Hilleran says requirements to essentially sanitize ship holds would create an undue burden on shipping.

"In my opinion, anything over and above what we're doing now ... you're close to the precipice of eliminating international shipping off the Great Lakes," says Hilleran.

Hilleran says it's also onerous for international ships to have to abide by separate restrictions from at least two nations and a dozen states.

Anything over and above what we're doing now ... you're close to the precipice of eliminating international shipping off the Great Lakes.
- Charles Hilleran, shipping agent

Currently, oceangoing ships are required to perform what's called a mid-ocean exchange. They pump out fresh water picked up in European ports and replace it with salt water. The idea is the freshwater organisms then get killed off. But that has proved unsuccessful.

Alan Burdick is a senior editor with Discover Magazine and author of the book, "Out of Eden," about invasive species. He says many invasive plants and animals can cling to the insides of ballast tanks, and actually thrive in what has become an ecosystem all its own, inside the hulls of ships.

"Then there's often a layer or two of mud at the bottom of a tank that may be a foot or two feet deep, that is also its own little bog down there," says Burdick.

Burdick says the ships are not the only source for invasive species in the United States, but they're the main contributor.

"Each of those ships you can think about as a moving aquarium, basically, moving millions of gallons of water from one estuary to another -- teeming with plankton, crabs, spores, fish. Whatever gets sucked up at one end of the journey can be, and often is, dumped out at the other end," says Burdick.

The Minnesota proponents of the legislation say all the Great Lakes states are considering similar restrictions.