Hundreds of species inhabit the Puget Sound watershed, each playing a unique and vital role in the ecosystem. Invasive species can irreparably damage this delicate balance, especially if left unaddressed. Ships traveling among water bodies with different native species often introduce invasive aquatic species via discharged ballast water. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ballast water discharge standards still fall woefully short of what is needed to stop the spread of invasives, and other harmful pathogens and bacteria, found in ballast water. 

What is Ballast Water?

When large ships travel across the open ocean, they need to be able to change how they sit in the water to help provide stability and maneuverability. They do this by intaking large volumes of water into ballast tanks that run along the vessel. Currently, the EPA rule states that “For organisms greater than or equal to 50 micrometers in minimum dimension: discharge must include fewer than 10 living organisms per cubic meter of ballast water.” For organisms smaller than 50 micrometers, the discharge must include fewer than 10 living organisms per milliliter of ballast water. Considering that cargo ships coming through the Sound can carry anywhere from a few hundred liters to over ten million liters, the potential for pollution is high.

What’s At Stake?

Washington is already facing an aquatic invasive species emergency. In January 2022, Governor Jay Inslee issued an Emergency Order to address the explosive European green crab population in Lummi Nation’s Sea Pond, Makah Bay, Grays Harbor, and Willapa Bay. The European green crab can cause beach erosion, outcompete native shellfish, wipe out oyster beds, and destroy eelgrass habitat vital for spawning and juvenile salmon and Dungeness crab. Considered one of the worst invasive species in the world, one female European green crab can produce 185,000 eggs per season and a single crab can eat 22 clams per day.

Regulation Issues

The EPA exempted ballast water discharge from the Clean Water Act (CWA) for 36 years after its passage, despite unmistakable evidence of the harm caused by invasive aquatic species. Federal courts found this to be in violation of the CWA and ordered the agency to regulate ballast discharges. Following this court finding, the EPA adopted discharge standards that did not meet the requirements of the CWA, and which again failed when challenged in court by environmental groups in 2015. In 2018, Congress passed the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) to reconcile and consolidate U.S. ballast water laws, confirming that the EPA must follow the CWA in establishing discharge standards. However, the EPA is proposing to re-issue discharge standards that the courts have previously found to be unlawful under the Act…twice.

What’s Happening at the State and Federal Levels?

This mounting body of evidence prompted legislators and environmental groups to call upon the EPA to establish new discharge standards that would fulfill the requirements of the CWA and protect our waters from invasive species. The CWA requires action based upon the best available technology. Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA, 2nd) recently circulated a sign-on letter to members of the House of Representatives. He asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan establish ballast water standards based on the CWA’s requirements.

The only other regulations to ballast water come from the United States Coast Guard. Under its rules, ships arriving to the Unites States from overseas must dump ballast water 50 miles offshore. The rules for interstate ballast dumping are either non-existent or much more relaxed. Washington has passed its own regulation preventing a ship from discharging its ballast water if its origin is anywhere outside of the “common water zone” pictured below. This measure is aimed at stopping the introduction of new invasive species, but sadly will do nothing to stop the spread of those that are already here. Furthermore, studies have shown that ballast water taken on at the mouth of the Columbia River contains high concentrations of aquatic invasive species.

Map showing Washington common waters. Graphic: WDFW

Image Source: Puget Sound Institute

What Are the Solutions?

The ultimate solution to the ballast water problem is treatment. Even if a ship is exchanging its ballast water 50 miles offshore, there is a good chance that some aquatic hitchhikers may stick around and still be discharged into Washington’s waters. Unfortunately, the shipping industry insists that installing treatment systems is too expensive. In a 2015 testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, two different representatives of Kirby Marine, the nation’s largest operator of inland and coastal barges, stated that they were delaying compliance with EPA ballast regulations due to the cost of ballast water treatment technology.

Puget Soundkeeper regularly deals with polluters who insist that the solutions to pollution are impossible or too expensive to install, yet ultimately find a way to install pollution controls after legal action. The 2021 reported profit for global shipping was a record breaking $150 billion. The health of our waters is a small price to pay in comparison.