Attorney General Cuomo Announces Major Environmental Victory In Protecting New York's Great Lakes From Invasive Species

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 23, 2008) – Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo announced a major victory today in his efforts to protect New York state’s Great Lakes from environmental damage caused by the dumping of contaminated ballast water by large commercial ships.

New York, together with five other Great Lakes states and several environmental groups, won a court decision stipulating that large vessels and other oceangoing freight ships can no longer discharge pollutant-containing ballast water without a permit.  

Cuomo today hailed the decision, stating that it will significantly reduce pollution in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, thereby protecting the ecosystems across upstate New York and ensuring that commercial and recreational fishing are not harmed.

“Today’s decision is a huge win in protecting New York state’s Great Lakes from invasive species and pollution that for too long have threatened our local ecosystems, economies and our health,” said Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. “Preserving Lake Erie and Lake Ontario for years to come is vital to our quality of life, our economic growth and our environment.”

In a decision issued today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that ships must comply with the Clean Water Act. Beginning September 30, 2008, ships will no longer be able to discharge pollutant-containing ballast water without a permit from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA had previously exempted these destructive discharges of “biological pollution” from Clean Water Act controls, despite clear evidence that ballast water discharges from oceangoing ships were bringing many aquatic invasive species such as the infamous zebra mussel into U.S. waters.

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 EPA is responsible for implementing the federal Clean Water Act but for years has allowed billions of gallons of contaminated ballast water to be discharged annually without the controls mandated by the Act. This illegal permit exemption has exacerbated the large scale ecological, commercial, financial, and recreational harms wrought by invasive species.

The decision focuses on the need to regulate ballast water discharges from large oceangoing cargo ships, which was the goal of the lawsuit.  The ruling gives the EPA broad flexibility and discretion with respect to discharges from other types of boats.  In order to further clarify that the Clean Water Act does not require the regulation of small recreational boats, the U.S. House and Senate yesterday both passed legislation that would exempt these boaters from Clean Water Act regulation of discharges incidental to the normal operation of their vessels.

The case is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Timothy Hoffman and Michael J. Myers of the Environmental Protection Bureau under the supervision of Special Deputy Attorney General Katherine Kennedy.