Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson's Ship Water Bill Is Damaging Environment, Advocates Say

An environmental group is asking supporters to call Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson out on a bipartisan bill meant to streamline regulations on ballast water discharged by ships that come into port. Bilge water is the mix of salt water, fresh water, chemicals and sludge that accumulates within a...
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An environmental group is asking supporters to call out Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson on a bipartisan bill meant to streamline regulations on ballast water discharged by ships that come into port. Bilge water is the mix of saltwater, freshwater, chemicals, and sludge that accumulates within a ship's bilge. A vessel generally collects water from one port and adds more while out at sea, then discharges it at the port of arrival. There have been regulations in place to minimize the impact, but the new bill would strip away a lot of those regulations. 

The bill in question, the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act of 2015 (VIDA), was introduced by Rubio, Nelson, and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota last February. The crux of the bill is to "set uniform standards for regulating ballast water and other incidental discharges from vessels, and clarify requirements for fishermen and other small boat users." The regulations, the bill argues, are too complicated and burdensome on the shipping industry — particularly smaller vessels that come into port. 

But Northwest Environmental Advocates, an advocacy group that pushes for water, wetlands, and wildlife habitat protection, says the water discharges from ships is damaging to habitat and water quality.

Ballast discharges shoot out gray water, bilge water, and harmful invasive species collected from one port to another, harming local habitats.

"We are concerned with both the effects of ships’ discharging aquatic invasive species as well as other forms of pollution, such as chemicals," the executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, Nina Bell, tells New Times. 

Bell says the invasive species that get churned up in the ballast water range from human pathogens such as cholera to larger species such as crabs, fish, and mussels — or the eggs of those species. 

"Each aquatic invasive species poses a different type of threat," she says.

For example, the zebra and quagga mussels have migrated across the country via discharged ballast water, something Bells says has demonstrated "extremely high economic cost of clogged infrastructure caused by those mussels."

Bell cites viruses being spread into places like the Great Lakes and the Gulf, due to ballast water from ships, and says that the environmental impact of the invasive species range from closed recreational and commercial fishing to ecosystems that are entirely upended.

In 1996, Congress passed the National Invasive Species Act to regulate ballast water discharges and the Coast Guard issued similar ballast water regulations in 2012. In 2013, the EPA published a Vessel General Permit that set ballast water discharge limits for commercial vessels, via the Clean Water Act. The permit called for limits of discharges from vessels 79 feet in length or longer while a separate permit was issued for smaller vessels a year later.

The Rubio and Nelson bill, which is also cosponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would allow an exemption for fishing boats, charter boats, and other small vessels from discharge requirements and liability. The senators have called the discharge regulations on small commercial vessels an unnecessary burden.

Maritime groups have come out in support of the bill. In February, a coalition of about 60 maritime organizations that rely on ships and vessels to transport essential cargo wrote a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee asking it to hasten the passing of the bill.

The letter says that the vessel discharge reform bill would establish "a uniform, science-based federal framework for the regulation of ballast water and other vessel discharges that will benefit all segments of the U.S. maritime industry."

The coalition called the regulations set in place via the Clean Water Act "complicated, confusing and costly."

"Workers in our fishing and shipping industries are the people hurt most by the excessive and often complicated web of federal and state regulations affecting vessel discharges," Rubio said in a press release in February. "We need a uniform set of environmentally sound standards that eliminates duplicative, redundant and sometimes entirely unnecessary regulation. This legislation would simplify the regulatory requirements on these businesses, which will allow them to spend less time worrying about unreasonable and complex regulations and more time focused on running successful businesses that employ thousands of Americans."

But Bell and the NWEA argue that the economic damage from ballast water is more costly due to its environmental impact. 

"Not only are they costing billions of dollars annually, much of the devastation caused by invasive species cannot be fixed," she says. "Unlike many forms of water pollution, invasive species are like a wildfire, growing in intensity and spreading. The federal government has been incredibly slow to respond. We are only at this point in regulation of invasive species because of multiple lawsuits." 

NWEA says that over a hundred other groups and individuals have responded to the call to action and signed a letter opposing the bill. The group is now asking Floridians concerned with the bill to call Rubio and Nelson's offices to register "continued opposition." 

Among some of the key talking points, the group is asking people to speak on is that removing ship discharges from the Clean Water Act would be a massive burden on taxpayers. "Pollution is already subsidized by the American taxpayer to the tune of billions a year," Bell points out.

The bill would also eliminate the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to protect National Marine Sanctuaries from ship discharges, NWEA says.

"Frankly it’s a mystery why any elected representative of the public who is concerned about not wasting taxpayers money or concerned about the environment would sign up for legislation that moves us backwards and fails to provide protection for our collective pocketbooks, our public waters, and our public health," Bell says.
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