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House votes to weaken federal crackdown on invasive species

WASHINGTON – Legislation intended to keep America safe may endanger the Great Lakes, environmentalists said Thursday after the House passed a defense bill that includes fine print loosening regulations aimed at keeping invasive species out of the region’s waterways.

The House on Wednesday passed a routine bill authorizing defense spending for the coming year, and tucked inside the legislation was a provision that has nothing to do with armies or guns or aircraft carriers: a passage weakening federal regulations aimed at preventing ships from inadvertently bringing invasive species into the Great Lakes.

Seeing that provision on Thursday, environmentalists were livid.

“The National Defense Authorization Act is supposed to be about protecting the homeland, not welcoming invasive species to our waters,” said Rebecca Riley, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The provisions in the bill weaken the Clean Water Act protections against invasive species that could enter the lakes through the ballast water that ships keep stored in their hulls to keep them balanced.

It’s not even clear how many lawmakers knew that the ballast water provisions were contained in the defense bill – an annual affair that typically makes no mention of the commercial shipping industry. Uncharacteristically, neither Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who voted against the bill, nor Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican who voted for it, could be reached to comment on the measure late Thursday.

But it seems that Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who has been pushing for the ballast-water changes since 2014, took to heart what a top shipping industry representative said at a House hearing last month.

“Please pass the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act this year and put an end to the dysfunctional regulatory system in which two federal agencies and more than two dozen states regulate ballast water and other vessel discharges in overlapping and inconsistent ways,” said Thomas Allegretti, president and chief executive officer of American Waterways Operators, which represents the nation’s tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

Hunter’s press secretary did not respond to a request for comment, but it appears that Hunter, the sponsor of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act and a member of the House committee that drew up the defense bill, found a way to add his legislation to the must-pass defense authorization bill.

Hunter made clear at that House hearing last month that he didn’t think much of the federal government’s current regulations on the issue, which involve both the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates ballast water under the Clean Water Act.

“This blows my mind,” Hunter said. “The situation only becomes more confusing and burdensome for vessel owners as each individual state adds its own ballast water discharge requirements on top of the EPA’s program.”

Hunter’s legislation puts the Coast Guard in charge of the ballast water issue, cutting the EPA and the states out of the process. Environmentalists strongly oppose that move because the EPA’s ballast water rules are far tougher than the Coast Guard’s.

And while Hunter won passage of weaker ballast rules in the House, his measure faces an uncertain future. Great Lakes senators are bound to oppose it – and in a statement released Monday, the Obama administration made clear that it opposes Hunter’s effort as well.

Saying Hunter’s proposal eliminates the federal government’s power to take action against shippers who break the rules and wrongfully dump ballast water in the wrong places, the administration concluded that the congresssman’s effort “undermines the ability to fight the spread of invasive species in our nation’s waters.”