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December 18, 2012

MADISON - Good news on the waterfront: the state's first full year of inspections of ocean-going and Great Lakes ships arriving in Wisconsin ports has found good compliance with ballast water regulations and recent legal decisions have cleared the way to more fully implement those regulations to reduce the risk that ballast water will bring invasive species to Wisconsin, state water quality officials say.

Department of Natural Resources officials have approved general permits for more than 300 vessels that include conditions to protect water quality, such as requiring that oceangoing vessels perform open ocean water exchange or saltwater flushing. And DNR's two inspectors - the only two in the Great Lake States - have inspected more than 130 vessels since May 2011, conducted training for shipping crews, and participated in ballast water research.

Ballast water in the United States is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard, but other Great Lakes states including Wisconsin have put in place their own permits over concerns the federal regulations were not protective enough.

A decision by a state administrative law judge late last month allowed Wisconsin to move ahead to amend its general water quality permit for ballast water discharges for those 300 vessels. The decision also allowed Wisconsin to submit its water quality certification, with additional water quality conditions, to be included in EPA's final federal permit regulating ballast water discharges for large vessels.

"We're pleased with the recent legal decisions supporting our approach as offering the best protection possible given the currently available treatment technology," says Susan Sylvester, who leads the DNR Water Quality Bureau.

Noting that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has identified more than 50 species as high risk for invading and becoming established in the Great Lakes as a result of ballast water, Sylvester says that Wisconsin is "pleased to have these issues settled and turn our attention to fully implementing proactive efforts to reduce the risk of new invaders entering the Great Lakes or existing ones spreading."

National and state wildlife groups had sought contested case hearings against DNR relating to ballast water discharges from vessels to Wisconsin waters. Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey D. Boldt on Nov. 29 rejected arguments advanced by the groups that DNR was required to establish numeric water quality based effluent limitations on ballast water discharges, according to DNR attorney Judy Ohm, the lead attorney on the case.

The judge concluded, among other findings, that DNR's decision to adopt the International Maritime Organization standard and not to impose additional water quality based effluent limitations was reasonable. The IMO standard is included in EPA's vessel general permit, and is the same standard adopted by EPA's Science Advisory Board, the National Academy of Science and the United States Coast Guard. DNR's permit and certification include additional conditions to protect water quality, such as the open ocean water exchange or saltwater flushing, Ohm says.

DNR had originally set limits on the number of living organisms allowed in ballast water to be 100 times more protective than the standard proposed by the IMO, but DNR reverted back to the IMO proposed standard after a study group of ballast water experts determined that there was no commercially available technology that could treat ballast water to reach a standard 100 times more protective than the IMO standard and no way to measure compliance with such a standard.

In a separate ruling, Boldt accepted an agreement between DNR and the oceangoing shippers that pushes back the date they are required to install treatment technologies for ballast water, Ohm says. New ships were to have had that treatment technology installed by 2012, and existing ships by 2014; the judge approved pushing back the deadlines to Dec. 1, 2013 for new vessels and to 2016 for existing vessels, the same as required by the U.S. Coast Guard, or sooner if such treatment technology is available and compatible for specific vessels.

Laura Madsen, who coordinates the ballast water program for DNR, says that Wisconsin "is eager to see the Coast Guard start approving ballast water treatment systems so that the systems can be installed on ships, which we want to see happen as soon as possible. It has been frustrating waiting on the technology to be improved!"

In the meantime, the ballast water exchange that Wisconsin requires and that other Great Lakes states strongly support has been very effective at reducing the risk of new introductions of aquatic invasive species, Madsen says. "Since the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation began to require exchange in 2006, there have been no documented cases of a new aquatic invasive species being introduced to the Great Lakes system," she says.

DNR water leaders also continue to work on a regional and national basis to strengthen federal protections to avoid a patchwork of regulation. While there is no one national or bi-national regulatory body for ballast water, there have been efforts to coordinate on a bi-national basis. Sylvester is involved in the Great Lakes Ballast Water Collaborative, and Ken Johnson, DNR's Water Administrator, leads the Great Lakes Commission.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Susan Sylvester (608) 266-1099; Judy Ohm (608) 266-9972

Last Revised: Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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