Although the shipping industry has made improvements to keep fish, plants and bacteria from other continents out of the ballast water of ocean-going vessels, the United States and Canada are nowhere near a long-term solution to prevent more exotic species from wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes.
The Obama administration should not lose sight of this and Great Lakes states like Pennsylvania must pressure the Environmental Protection Agency to write tough ballast water rules.
The lakes' threat of Asian carp from the Mississippi River made people forget about the billions of dollars of damage caused by eastern European zebra mussels that were transported in the ballast water of ships to the lakes in 1986. Zebra and quagga mussels, their larger biological cousins that followed them, fanned out across the lakes, clogged intake pipes, destroyed food for native fish and are partly to blame for algae problems.
These mussels are just two of more than 180 unwanted intruders in the lakes. Most arrived in ballast water.
The new EPA regulations would require that ballast water be exchanged at sea to kill off freshwater species from other parts of the world. Ships would have to install exotic-species control technology to meet standards established in 2004 by the International Maritime Organization.
Yet EPA officials appear willing to give some ships nearly a decade to comply. It's time for the EPA to get serious, even if it means adding chlorine to or heat-treating ballast tanks. It could start by regulating ballast water in "lakers," ships confined to the Great Lakes that make up the majority of the region's ship traffic. They don't bring the exotic species into the lakes, but they spread them.
The failure to adopt a strong ballast-water standard has led to a flood of state rules. That doesn't serve the interests of anyone except politicians who want to point out the EPA's ineptitude on the issue. But even New York, which imposed strict ballast-water standards along its portion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, has delayed implementation under industry pressure.
Exotic species have damaged the Great Lakes since the 1800s. Vampire-like sea lamprey fed on native fish for more than 100 years. Access to the lakes by invaders was made easier in the early 1900s, when the Welland Canal was built to help ships bypass Niagara Falls. Zebra quagga mussels have plagued the lakes for decades.
It's time for Washington to get tough on ballast water.