The Senate Loves These Undocumented Aliens

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Senators Use Coast Guard Budget Bill to Gut Tough ‘Invasive Species’ Water Regulation

Senate Republicans are trying to circumvent a federal court decision that requires the Environmental Protection Agency to get tougher on invasive species that have decimated our country’s waters such as the Great Lakes and San Francisco Bay.

Republicans and some Democrats on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee amended a budget bill for the Coast Guard to take away EPA authority to regulate ships that can bring hitchhikers such as the zebra mussel to our country.

“Republicans are giving foreign shipping interests the green light to cause irreparable harm to some of our most beautiful waters,” said Brett Hartl, the government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)

ACTION BOX/ What you can do about it

You can contact the Senate’s Commerce, Science & Transportation committee here. Before S.1129 comes up for a full vote in the Senate, contact your senator. Call or write, don’t email.

Organizations that oppose the bill include the Center for Biological Diversity which can be reached at 520-623-5252 or center@biologicaldiversity.org.  The National Wildlife Federation also opposes efforts to weaken EPA enforcement and can be reached at 1-800-822-9919.

Invasive species cause an estimated $137 billion a year in damage in our country, more than natural disasters. Zebra mussels, first seen in 1988 in a lake near Detroit, have spread throughout the Great Lakes and connecting rivers. The mussels, which grow in clusters that can plug pipes and may help cause algae blooms, are now in Oklahoma and Texas.

The chairman of the commerce committee, Sen. John Thune, from land-locked South Dakota, included provisions in the Coast Guard bill, S. 1129, that would give it most of the authority to regulate ballast water. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska.). The EPA and the Coast Guard currently jointly regulate where ships discharge ballast water, and some states have also passed laws.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, also supports taking power away from the EPA. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) oppose it. Baldwin called the measure a “step backward.”

How alien species stow away in ballast water

As committee members move to strip the EPA of authority, they want to base enforcement on weaker 2012 regulations. The proposed Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, S. 168, sponsored by Thune, Nelson and others, would also water down EPA authority.

A 2015 federal appeals court decision requires the EPA to strengthen pollution controls on ballast water. Ships for decades could dump water at will. Many ships are now required to treat it with onboard systems or dump the water in the ocean, but the onboard systems can’t eliminate invasive species.

“Simply exchanging the water or flushing with salt water does not kill all the critters that could be in a ballast tank,” said Marc Smith of the National Wildlife Federation.

The EPA has opposed piping the water to shore to be treated much like sewage and drinking water are treated. The judge in the case wrote that the EPA “acted arbitrarily and capriciously” in failing to consider treating the water onshore. “EPA turned a blind eye to significant information about onshore treatment,” wrote Denny Chin of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

As Republicans try to make it easier for ships to dump contaminated water in our country’s lakes and rivers, scientists are studying a species of zooplankton about the size of a grain of rice in Lake Erie.

The plankton, Thermocyclops crassus, is similar to the plankton in the lake that fish feed on. Scientists aren’t yet sure what harm, if any, this newest invader could cause.