N.Y. sinks ‘unattainable’ rules for St. Lawrence traffic

State conservation officials in New York have deep-sixed proposals for rules that would have required vessels using the St. Lawrence Seaway to install treatment systems for their ballast water by next year.

Thursday’s announcement comes as a relief to the Canadian government, as enforcement of such rules on transiting ships would have blocked grain and other commercial freight on the Seaway, Pierre Poilievre, federal parliamentary secretary for transport, said in a release Friday.

"Canada applauds New York state for withdrawing its unattainable ballast water requirements and agrees that uniform standards are the best way to protect the marine environment," he said.

Ballast water is pumped onboard vessels to increase draught, change trim, regulate stability and/or maintain stress loads within acceptable limits.

A new International Maritime Organization (IMO) convention — which Canada among other nations ratified in 2010 — would require seagoing vessels to install treatment systems for their ballast, so as to prevent foreign microorganisms from hitching rides into U.S. or Canadian waters in ships’ ballast tanks.

New York’s government, however, had planned to impose its own ballast treatment requirements starting in 2013, well beyond those in the IMO convention.

The New York proposals were to be so strict that the technology and testing capabilities to comply with them don’t yet exist, the Canadian government warned in November.

New York’s plan would have applied not only to vessels entering New York harbours, but to any vessel traveling in New York waters on the St. Lawrence Seaway — whether the vessel plans to discharge ballast water there or not.

Two St. Lawrence Seaway locks near the entrance to the Great Lakes lie within New York waters, so enforcement of the requirements on transiting ships would have essentially stopped commercial traffic on the Seaway, the Canadian government said in November.

New York’s rules, Ottawa said at the time, would not only have curtailed Canadian shipments to and from ports at New York and New Jersey, but would also essentially shut down Canadian ships travelling between Canadian ports from the Seaway east.

"International commerce"

However, on Thursday, Joe Martens, commissioner for New York’s department of environmental conservation, said the state would instead stick with the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for ballast, now in force until December 2013.

"New York remains concerned about the introduction and spread of invasive species in the state’s waterways and we hope that a strong national solution can be achieved," Martens said in a release, noting zebra mussels and over 180 other invasive species already infest the Great Lakes.

"At the same time, shipping and maritime activity is critical to New York state and international commerce."

A "technically feasible" national standard, he said, will be "the only viable way to address the spread of destructive aquatic invaders through ballast water."

The EPA, he noted, proposes to stick with the IMO convention standards for its next four-year term for vessel general permits, running from December 2013 to December 2017.

Martens said he and officials from California, Michigan and various Great Lakes states plan to press for the EPA to take a "more protective" approach.

The state noted it has already urged the EPA to adopt discharge standards by June 2016 that would be "100 times" greater than IMO levels.

Canada already has strong regulations in place to reduce the risk of aquatic species invasions, Poilievre said Friday, noting there have been "no new species attributed to ballast water reported in the Great Lakes since 2006."

Canada, he said, will move to implement "even stronger rules to build on this accomplishment (and) believes it is possible to simultaneously protect ships and their crews, the environment and the economy."

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system is scheduled to re-open to vessel traffic for the 2012 season at 8 a.m. on March 22, on both its Montreal-Lake Ontario section and the Welland Canal. The U.S. Soo Locks are due to open March 25.

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