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The MV Arthur M. Anderson steams into the port of Superior. Staff photo

Disagreement with Feds may close Wisconsin ports to shipping

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A disagreement between Wisconsin and the federal government over how to regulate ballast water has left Great Lakes ship owners facing possible legal action if they enter Badger State ports after Dec. 19.

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The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says a new Environmental Protection Agency pollution discharge permit for ships isn't good enough to protect the state's waters from invasive species carried in ship ballast tanks.

Instead, the DNR has developed new guidelines that mirror water quality regulations adopted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in September, requiring all ship owners to treat ballast to kill invasive species by 2016.

"We thought it was important to make a statement at this time to show we are serious about this issue,'' said Roger Larson, deputy director of the DNR's watershed management division. "We're saying that we think ballast treatment is necessary down the line to fully protect Wisconsin waters.''

Because Wisconsin didn't certify the federal permit rules, both the Lakes Carriers Association and National Wildlife Federation filed for a contested case hearing with the DNR. But that won't happen until January. In the meantime, there's no federal permit allowing ships to discharge any pollutants into Wisconsin waters.

"Until Wisconsin provides or waives certification and EPA issues a permit for Wisconsin, any discharges that are incidental to the normal operation of a vessel will be in violation" of the federal Clean Water Act, wrote Timothy Henry, acting director of the EPA's water division in Chicago, in a Nov. 20 letter to Wisconsin DNR. "Citizen suits and enforcement actions could be taken against any vessel owner or operator who discharges a pollutant to navigable waters without a NPDES permit.''

While Larson noted the EPA has no field staff to enforce the permit rule, the Coast Guard could take action based on existing laws and environmental groups could take civil action under the Clean Water Act.

Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said no ship owner will take the chance of violating a federal law. He said the effect could stifle coal shipments from Superior's Midwest Energy Terminal and iron ore shipments out of the city's Burlington Northern taconite dock.

The ruling also could prevent Great Lakes boats from spending the winter in Superior where they often undergo maintenance and repairs to prepare for the next shipping season.

"It would prevent any boat from laying up at Fraser Shipyards. They have to empty their ballast so they don't freeze, and they clearly can't do that under this letter,'' Ojard said. "I would think they (EPA and DNR) should be able to work things out before then. This seems like some sort of bureaucratic brinksmanship.''

Glen Nekvasil, vice president for corporate communications for the Lake Carriers Association that represents U.S. owners of Great Lakes freighters, said the situation could "shut down Great Lakes shipping in Wisconsin after midnight on Dec. 19.''

"It's not just a ballast issue. It's engine cooling water and everything else. ... Our lakers couldn't enter any Wisconsin ports under this situation after midnight on Dec. 19,'' he said.

Nekvasil said his group has appealed to Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle to urge the DNR to certify the federal rules for now and resolve other issues later.

"We hope we can still work this out by the 19th,'' he said.

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