LANSING - The underbellies of cargo ships and their ballast water have become a battleground for environmentalists and shipping businesses throughout the Great Lakes.
Michigan's rigorous treatment standards for ballast water, which most large vessels use as a balancing mechanism when carrying heavy cargo, have caused friction between environmental and industrial interests as legislators consider a proposal that might keep invasive aquatic species out of the lakes without crippling the state's shipping industry.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, would lessen the standards and allow ships to use ballast water exchange, a method of exchanging freshwater ballast for saltwater ballast without additional treatment. That change would match national and international requirements put in place by the U.S. Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization.
In this early April file photo, the saltwater ship Arubaborg passes beneath the span of the Aerial Lift Bridge as it pulls into port on Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn. (AP photo)
Supporters of the bill argue that looser standards would help rebuild the state's shipping industry and allow more seafaring vessels to export Michigan cargo, but environmental activists and some senators are concerned the lowered standards will make the Great Lakes more susceptible to invasive animals.
Under current Michigan requirements, ballast water must be almost as clean as drinking water - a nearly impossible standard, said Paul LaMarre III, director of the Port of Monroe.
By lowering the standard to internationally accepted levels, he said the state would open itself to more shipping companies that don't have the money to implement costly water cleaning technology, which would be a boon to a hurting industry.
"Michigan standing firm on this legislation does nothing but economically hurt our state," LaMarre said. "Of course we need to be stewards of these great waterways, but we need to take a regional approach to doing that. We can't stand alone on a regulation hurting what is already one of the most depressed economies in the nation."
LaMarre also noted that even with the laxer international standards in place in other states, no invasive species are known to have entered the Great Lakes through ballast water in at least five years.
The bill would change a 2005 law that imposes rigorous standards on ships carrying ballast water. It's currently before the Senate's Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee.
Historically, ballast water has been one of the main vehicles for transporting invasive species into the lakes, and the current standards were put in place to prevent the onslaught of more invasive species from foreign waters.
The 2005 law had good intentions, but hasn't had the desired results, said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, a co-sponsor and chair of the committee.
None of the other Great Lakes states have picked up Michigan's standards, thus allowing ships without the capacity to implement more rigorous ballast water treatment to head to other states to do business, Casperson said.
The law hasn't solved a regional problem, he said, and the fact that no other states followed Michigan's example is a bad sign: "We don't feel like we've done anything to help Michigan with our law, and that's what we're trying to resolve."
Committee Vice Chair Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, said she hadn't seen any hard data indicating negative effects on the shipping industry because of the law and currently opposes the legislation.
At a recent committee meeting, Warren said she was uncomfortable voting on such a proposal when invasive species prevention and treatment cost the Michigan government and businesses millions of dollars a year.
Among the eight states bordering the Great Lakes, Michigan's standards on ballast water are by far the most aggressive, said Stuart Theis, executive director of the Cleveland-based U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association.
Before the Coast Guard adopted national standards in March, Theis said states were across the board in their standards and thus confusing for the shipping industry. The new national standard complies with international regulations and is used by nearly every other state on the Great Lakes.
"Until the Coast Guard regulations were passed, ballast water standards were an awful experience for the industry because there was no clear answer," Theis said.
"It's a good compromise made so states no longer feel the necessity to have ballast regulation laws and they can set them to the national standard. That has obviously not happened in Michigan," he said.
Theis said a potentially more important way to be environmentally conscious is to effectively treat existing invasive species, fix existing problems and prevent the animals from traveling out of the lakes into other U.S. water systems.
"What we have in our bucket is bad enough," Theis said. "Now we're down to a situation where freshwater boats could ship invasive species from our lakes into their waters, and that's a big scare."
Despite the potential economic drawbacks, Michigan Environmental Council policy director James Clift said the danger ballast water poses to the Great Lakes cannot be ignored.
Although the proposal would require ballast water exchange, he said some aquatic animals can adapt well in salt water and could make it through the flush.
"It is not going to be good enough for the Great Lakes," Clift said. "Dropping those standards would probably allow more species to establish themselves."
Casperson said further action on the legislation will most likely hold until Gov. Rick Snyder announces his vision on environmental quality sometime after the November election. He anticipates the committee will hear further testimony from both sides of the debate before the end of the year.