In December, the EPA released a general permit for cargo vessels entering the Great Lakes or other US waters from overseas that includes rules for 26 types of discharges, such as ballast, oily bilge water and "gray water", deck runoff and engine cooling water. Beginning on February 6, 2009, vessels ranging from large cruise ships to barges, tankers and many recreational vessels have to obtain permit coverage meet certain requirements under the terms of the Vessel General Permit (VGP). These new requirements include best management practices and standards that differ depending on the type of discharge and the type of vessel. Recordkeeping requirements, self reporting, training and other obligations are also required for vessel owners and operators.
One of the key goals of the permit program is to control the spread of invasive species. Ballast water is a leading pathway for the spread of zebra mussels and other non-native aquatic species, which can displace native species and result in significant damage. The EPA permit requires vessels heading for US ports with full ballast tanks to exchange the water at least 200 miles from shore. Ships with empty tanks must rinse them with salt water to kill freshwater organisms remaining in residual puddles or sediment.
However, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency has indicated that the agency now plans to reconsider these rules. The agency believes that the VGP may do too little to prevent cargo ships from spreading invasive species. Similar measures have already had been required by Canada and the U.S. Coast Guard, and evidence suggests that they have been ineffective at control the spread of invasive species. Environmental groups also sued EPA in February 2009, saying the permit did not meet requirements of the Clean Water Act. They want shippers to install systems for sterilizing tanks to control invasive species.
The States of Minnesota and Michigan set up their own discharge permit programs before the EPA completed its VGP. The other Great Lakes states, except Wisconsin, added their own specifications to the EPA rules. Wisconsin state water officials adopted the VGP without amendments.
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