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August 30, 2011

MADISON - - The state and several conservation groups have agreed to wait until the federal government proposes revised discharge standards aimed at reducing invasive species released in commercial vessels' ballast water before settling a contested case against Wisconsin's ballast water discharge general permit.

A contested case hearing originally scheduled for Sept. 13 has been stayed under a settlement among the Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation. Those organizations had contested DNR's ballast water permit rules as inadequate when it was issued in November 2009.

"We're pleased we've reached a settlement and can wait to see what EPA's improved general permit contains before taking any farther action," says Susan Sylvester, who leads the Department of Natural Resources' watershed program.

"We've long argued that there needs to be one strong national set of rules to follow instead of a patchwork of state rules. The ball is in EPA's court. We urge EPA to produce a general permit that delivers the protection the Great Lakes and our inland waters deserve while giving shipping companies a uniform regulation they can follow."

EPA is under court deadline to propose a draft general vessel permit by Nov. 20, 2011. DNR has called for that revised permit to include stringent numerical standards for live organisms left in ballast water after it has been treated.

Wisconsin, New York, Michigan and Minnesota all have started to regulate ballast water discharges in recent years, fearing the federal rules were not protective enough of the Great Lakes. The ballast water that large oceangoing commercial ships carry to steady themselves has been the main source of new invaders to the Great Lakes for the last 100 years. Zebra mussels, sea lampreys, and round gobies are among invaders brought in ballast water, and they have disrupted the food chain, harmed fisheries, fouled beaches, clogged water and utility infrastructure, and cost citizens, governments and businesses billions of dollars.

New research, however, is showing that ballast water exchange in the open ocean, a requirement in current U.S. Coast Guard rules, is significantly curbing new introductions of aquatic invasive species from freshwater sources. However, there is concern that this requirement will not be kept in the new Coast Guard rules, which were to have been issued in 2010 but have not yet been released.

Exchanging ballast water at sea can reduce by up to 95 percent the number of invasive species that have the greatest chance of surviving and causing trouble in freshwater bodies, according to Sarah Bailey, PhD., a research scientist for the Canadian federal government's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and a member of the Great Lakes Ballast Water Collaborative, a regional network of scientists and policymakers that Wisconsin asked to examine its treatment standard in 2010.

Older research had raised questions about the effectiveness of ballast water exchange and the variation among ships in how frequently and how well they performed the process. But Bailey's research is showing that done right, the plants, animals and pathogens are purged at sea as the ballast water is exchanged; organisms remaining in the tank are then subjected to the salt water taken in, which kills and weakens many of them.

Wisconsin requires ballast water exchange and treatment standards

Wisconsin's permitting requirements, which started in February 2010 and were modified earlier this year, require ballast water exchange or flushing in the open water, and phase-in numerical treatment standards, according to Laura Madsen, who coordinates the ballast water permit program.

New oceangoing vessels will need to meet numerical treatment standards starting Jan. 1, 2012, and existing oceangoing vessels will need to meet them two years later.

So far, Wisconsin has issued permits to 241 vessels, approximately 143 oceangoing vessels and 98 "lakers," ships that travel between Great Lakes ports, Madsen says.

DNR has two inspectors -- one for Lake Superior and one for Lake Michigan. The inspectors have been boarding vessels, asking for and reviewing documents describing their management of ballast water and sediment, and making recommendations for improvements, Madsen says.

"What the inspectors are finding is that the shipping companies are doing a good job so far," Madsen says. "The industry is highly regulated internationally, and overall, there's a high compliance rate. They know they're being scrutinized and are, for the most part, already doing what they're supposed to be doing."

More information on ballast water discharge general permit is available in a media kit on the DNR website.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Susan Sylvester (608) 266-1099; Margaret Hoefer (608) 266-7588

Last Revised: Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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