By LAUREN GIBBONS
Special to the Record-Eagle
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 animals 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.
Bill supporters 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
LAUREN GIBBONS writes for Michigan State University's Capital News Service.