U.S. EPA Sued Over Failure to Regulate Invasive Species Discharged by Ships

Ballast water: The nation's largest source of invasive species


Deborah Sivas, Earthjustice 650-723-0325


Nina Bell, NWEA 503-295-0490


Linda Sheehan, TOC 415-979-0900


Leo O’Brien, WaterKeepers 415-856-0444

Three environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday seeking regulation of ships’ ballast water discharges, which are the nation’s largest source of aquatic invasive species. The suit comes five years after the groups originally petitioned EPA to withdraw a regulation that illegally exempts such ballast water discharges from Clean Water Act permits. EPA denied the petition in September after the groups brought a successful lawsuit that forced the agency to answer the petition.

The new lawsuit asks the federal district court in San Francisco to find that EPA’s 1973 regulation is inconsistent with the Clean Water Act and to order its immediate repeal. The groups contend that the regulation illegally allows shippers to circumvent the Clean Water Act’s permitting program, which all other point source dischargers in the country must follow.

In its September 2, 2003 denial of the groups’ 1999 petition, EPA refused to implement the required permitting program and control a threat that has caused billions of dollars of damage nationwide, even though it expressly admitted that the Clean Water Act “does not explicitly exclude such discharges from permitting requirements.”

“EPA has compounded the high environmental and economic costs associated with existing invasive species along the nation’s coasts and in the Great Lakes by avoiding Clean Water Act requirements that would prevent new invasions,” said Nina Bell, Executive Director of Northwest Environmental Advocates. “EPA’s refusal to follow the Clean Water Act during the five years since we first asked the agency to remove this illegal regulations leaves us no other choice but to return to court to force compliance with the law,” she added.

Linda Sheehan, Director of the Pacific Region Office for The Ocean Conservancy, said EPA’s inaction was inexplicable in light of the urgency of the problem: “Invasive species carried in ships’ ballast water significantly impact to businesses, taxpayers and the environment. They harm commercial fishing and shellfishing, clog the intake pipes of power plants and drinking water treatment facilities, destroy habitats and push threatened species to the edge of extinction. Ballast water is the biggest source of new aquatic species making homes for themselves in the country’s coastal waters. EPA must place the burden of controlling invasive species on those who create the problem, not those who are suffering the consequences of it.”

Live species from other countries are carried to U.S. waters in ballast water that ships use for stabilization. The ballast water can be discharged into bays, estuaries, and the Great Lakes as ships approach port and when cargo for export is loaded. Over 21 billion gallons of ballast water from international ports is discharged into U.S. waters each year. Estimates of the cost of invasive species to the U.S. economy are in the billions of dollars annually.

Northwest Environmental Advocates, The Ocean Conservancy, and WaterKeepers Northern California, three of the original fifteen signers of the petition filed in January 1999, brought the lawsuit filed today. The groups went to federal court to force EPA to respond to the petition two years later and ultimately agreed upon September 2, 2003 as the date by which EPA would respond to the petition.

“San Francisco Bay is a poster child for the harm caused by invasive species carried in ballast water,” noted Leo O’Brien, Executive Director of WaterKeepers Northern California. “The Asian clam, the green crab, and the Chinese mitten crab all were carried here in ballast water. Invasive species now represent virtually all of the aquatic life in the Bay, and it’s getting worse: on average, a new species establishes itself in the Bay every 14 weeks. The piecemeal, voluntary efforts that have been put in place since we filed the petition are simply not enough to stem this modern invasion,” he added.

The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund’s Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford University and Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, OR, represent the three organizations.

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