Coast Guard bill would weaken water pollution rules, environmentalists say
The Senate could vote on a Coast Guard bill in the coming days that environmentalists and Democratic attorneys general say would weaken water pollution standards.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed cloture on a bill to reauthorize Coast Guard programs late Monday and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the upper chamber will “hopefully” vote on it this week.
The bill includes a version of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), which would exempt ships’ ballast water from Clean Water Act oversight under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and stop most states’ attempts to regulate the ballast water.
Ships usually take in water at ports to help balance and provide stability on their journeys. Operators then discharge the water at other ports, potentially bringing invasive species or pollutants from the previous port.
Ballast water has been blamed for some of the worst invasive species cases, like zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and various algae species.
Environmentalists say removing the EPA’s authority — and leaving the regulation of ballast water solely to the Coast Guard — would remove important water protections.
“VIDA moves us away from the responsible management of ballast water discharges by completely removing Clean Water Act authority over ship ballast water discharges,” a coalition of green groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and American Rivers, wrote to senators last week.
“Under VIDA, the Clean Water Act would cease to apply to all ship incidental discharges — including ballast water, nutrient-laden greywater, and chemicals — from commercial vessels,” they wrote.
Democratic state attorneys general also object to the bill because it would block states, in most cases, from regulating ballast water themselves.
“This legislation seeks to preempt traditional state authority to take the actions necessary for protecting state water resources, while doing away with existing federal laws that safeguard our nation’s waters against harmful pollutant discharges from vessels,” 10 state attorneys general, led by New York’s Eric Schneiderman (D), wrote to senators last year.
But the shipping industry has long argued that the EPA and states are not the right bodies to regulate ballast and that the Coast Guard, as the main authority overseeing waterways in ports, is better equipped.
A coalition of maritime industry and labor groups told senators last year that a previous version of the bill “will establish nationally uniform and environmentally sound standards for ballast water and other vessel discharges.”
They complained that an “overlapping patchwork of federal and state regulations makes compliance complicated, confusing and costly for vessel owners and mariners.”
The bill’s sponsors are Thune, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).