Attorney General Cuomo Announces Environmental Victory For Great Lakes And Other New York Waterways Regarding Invasive Species

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 29, 2009) - Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced another victory in his efforts to protect New York state waterways from environmental damage caused by the dumping of contaminated ballast water by large commercial ships.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Hon. Robert A. Sackett agreed with the state of New York and dismissed a challenge to permit requirements issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation designed to control discharges of invasive species to the Great Lakes and other waterways by ocean-going vessels. Specifically, the court rejected the arguments of a coalition of large shipping interests claiming that the state had illegally placed further restrictions on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nationwide discharge permit for these vessels.

“This decision is a critical win for New York’s right and responsibility to protect our Great Lakes and resources,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “The Court’s decision not only defends our state’s actions, but affirms our right to take necessary measures to fight the plague of invasive species. Ensuring the continued health of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario is vital to our quality of life, our economic growth and our environment.”

Attorney General Cuomo has led efforts to fight the enormous threat that invasive species pose to the overall health and sustainability of New York and the Great Lakes. In July 2008, Cuomo, together with five other Attorneys General from states bordering the Great Lakes and several environmental groups, won a Federal Court decision confirming that large vessels and other oceangoing freight ships can no longer discharge pollutant-containing ballast water without a permit. Earlier in 2008, New York signed onto a successful amicus brief in support of a Michigan law to control invasive species pollution by vessels. The Michigan law was upheld in Federal Court, defeating a legal challenge by various shipping companies.

Lake Erie and Lake Ontario border Western New York and the North Country and are critical to the environmental and socio-economic infrastructure of the regions. Ballast water discharges occur when a vessel is moved from one body of water to another and the water the ship carries with it is released. When these releases are untreated, they can contain transported invasive species that disrupt the natural ecosystem in the second body of water.

Untreated vessel ballast discharges have resulted in the introduction of more than 180 aquatic invasive species into the Great Lakes, and have similarly affected other U.S. waters. These discharges are a particularly harmful type of pollution because the invading species are able to reproduce and grow over time, allowing them to overwhelm entire ecosystems. They prey upon native species, causing population declines and harm to commercial and recreational fisheries. Billions of dollars in damage to fisheries, recreation, and public infrastructure is directly attributed to the aquatic invasive species epidemic.

  • The zebra mussel, introduced into a small area of the Great Lakes in the late 1980s, has propagated into all five Great Lakes and many other North American waterways, reaching densities of up to one million per square yard and causing costly damage to water and power plants by clogging intake pipes.
  • Invasive viruses and toxins, such as viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) and Type E botulism, have been implicated in recent large-scale fish and bird die-offs.
  • Some native species, like unionid clams in the western basin of Lake Erie, are nearly extinct. Small organisms at the base of the food web also have been severely affected.

The devastating effect of invasive species has had direct human implications.

  • A 2001 EPA report indicated that a strain of cholera that killed 10,000 people in Latin America in 1991 was introduced by the bilge water of a Chinese freighter. The strain then came to the U.S. in the ballast tanks of ships from Latin America, but was fortunately detected in oyster and finfish samples in the Alabama port where the ships anchored.
  • The Department of Agriculture spends millions of dollars each year to combat invasive species. A study by the General Accounting Office estimated that the total annual economic losses and associated costs related to invasive species totals $137 billion - more than double the annual economic damage caused by all natural disasters in the United States.

The case is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Timothy Hoffman, Environmental Scientist Dr. Ray Vaughan and Deputy Bureau Chief of Attorney General Cuomo’s Environmental Protection Bureau Lisa Burianek under the supervision of Special Deputy Attorney General Katherine Kennedy.

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