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In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, spilling millions of liters of crude oil and killing hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and birds. It was one of the worst environmental disasters in history. Alaska’s coast has, fortunately, not seen a repeat event since. But every day, Alaska’s ecosystem is endangered by oil tankers—though in a far more subtle way.
Before they travel the world’s oceans, oil tankers and other large ships that are not carrying cargo will suck up as much as tens of millions of liters of water into tanks to help maintain balance and stability. When a tanker reaches port in Alaska and is preparing to take on oil, it will dump this water into the sea. All told, tankers transport billions of liters of ballast water to Alaskan waters every year.
The main problem with ballast water is that ships are often near the shore when they fill their tanks, and are near the shore again when they discharge the water at their destination, which might be thousands of kilometers away. That means that potentially invasive critters that survived the journey in the ballast water may easily adapt to their new ecosystem. In fact, transport in ballast water is one of the most common ways aquatic invasive species end up in new habitats. And in Alaska, the risk of introduction is growing: climate change means that an environment that was previously too cold for many species is becoming hospitable.
To combat these marine invaders, many countries, including the United States, have laws regulating how ships must deal with ballast water. But according to a new overview of US ballast water policy by researchers Danielle E. Verna and Bradley P. Harris, the protection against invasive species offered by these rules is weakened by exceptions—especially for ships traveling short distances within American waters.
Federal laws regarding ballast water were first put on the books in 1990, mostly to address the threat from invasive species in the Great Lakes. In 1996, the rules expanded to include coastal vessels. Yet until 2008, oil tankers that didn’t stray more than 320 kilometers from America’s coastlines did not have to comply with these regulations. In 2008, in response to a lawsuit brought by several environmental groups, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a permitting system for managing ballast water, one that didn’t include the oil tanker exemption.
But the new permitting system still allows ships to skirt managing their ballast water if they are traveling within a single US Coast Guard-designated regional zone. Some of these regional zones, however, are huge. For Alaska, one zone encompasses nearly the entire state. That means that if an invasive species takes hold at one Alaskan port, it may get a free ticket to other ports. And this doesn’t apply just to Alaska; this exemption exists throughout the country.
In 2013, the EPA once again updated its ballast water permitting system, but ran into another lawsuit from environmental groups that claimed they hadn’t considered more stringent limits. Last year, the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, instructing the EPA to consider more demanding requirements when revising its permit requirements for 2018.
Ballast water management “is going in a good direction, and it has been for a while,” says Verna. With enough political will, that trend may continue, and the remaining exceptions that put Alaskan shores at risk will be removed. New techniques for treating ballast water are also being developed and may eventually be mandatory.
But that will only happen if progress continues. The EPA, however, may not get another chance to revise the ballast water permits.
A bill that would give full authority for regulating ballast water to the coast guard passed the US House in May as an attachment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA); however, the Senate passed the NDAA without its version of that bill attached.
Brett Hartl, a policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, is fighting to keep the bill out of the final version of the NDAA. “That [bill] would effectively, in our view, eliminate any real clamping down on ballast water discharges,” he says.
If passed, the bill would also prevent states from enacting their own stricter ballast water regulations—something that several coastal states, including California and Washington, have already done. If Hartl and others working to stop that bill can succeed—and if the EPA tightens regulations in 2018—Alaska’s shores may continue to stay invasive species-free.