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Environmentalists sue DEC over ballast rule flip-flop

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MASSENA - The National Wildlife Federation has sued the state Department of Environmental Conservation for “severely” weakening its defenses against aquatic invasive species by backing off from its strict ballast discharge rules.

“New York has gone 180 degrees from a leader in protecting water quality to defending an inadequate status quo,” said Marc Smith, senior policy manager with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office, in a news release.

He was referring to DEC’s decision in February to advocate for stricter national ballast water quality standards rather than sticking with its 2008 discharge rules, which were at least 100 times more stringent than international guidelines.

Mr. Smith said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has so far “failed to address the problem” and that conservationists will “not sit back and let states rubber stamp the agency’s flawed permit.”

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in state Supreme Court in Albany County. The National Wildlife Federation said similar lawsuits are pending in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Ocean vessels store water in their ballast tanks to maintain stability during transit, sometimes bringing with them unwanted “hitchhikers,” such as zebra and quagga mussels, to U.S. waterways.

Four years ago, New York adopted a ballast tank living organism limit that was 100 times — and down the road, 1,000 times — more stringent than that of the International Maritime Organization’s guidelines to help stop the introduction and spread of harmful foreign species.

These rules were met with fierce opposition, with critics of the law arguing that the state’s “scientifically unachievable” standards would have created a bottle neck in the surrounding region’s inland water freight transportation.

St. Lawrence Seaway officials, shippers, the Canadian government and governors of Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin have said New York’s law would have effectively “shut down” New York’s portion of the Seaway, the entrance into the Great Lakes shipping system.

Environmentalists, however, say that it all comes down to who pays the price because the technology to meet the strict standards exists but is pricey to implement.

The National Wildlife Federation estimates that foreign invasive species cause more than $200 million per year in damages and control costs across the Great Lakes.

On the other hand, thousands of ships use the Seaway every year, and the high-tech treatment systems that New York would have required to cleanse ballast tanks were said to cost around $2 million to $3 million per ship.

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