Source: Buffalo News
Environmental groups came up short in their fight to prevent freighters from sweeping or washing limestone, iron ore, coal and other non-toxic remnants of their dry cargo into the Great Lakes.
A federal rule that went into effect earlier this year allows what has been a long-time practice in Great Lakes commerce: shipping vessels, under certain conditions, washing down residues in their cargo holds left behind after their deliveries.
Environmental groups call it legalized pollution. “These lakes have been treated like a garbage dump for three quarters of a century,” Buffalo Niagara RiverKeeper wrote to federal officials during a public comment period. ”Now it is time to start protecting the environment.”
But the U.S. Coast Guard, in making the rule, said “most vessels appear to be minimizing the volume of dry cargo residue they discharge. They treat their cargo as a commodity to be conserved and not wasted.” The new rule also won the blessing of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Shippers contend the practice will not harm the lakes.
“It is just good business to not have cargo residue,” said Glen G. Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, which represents 17 American companies that operate 57 shipping carriers, including Williamsville-based American Steamship Co.
“We are talking about minute quantities of non-hazardous, non-toxic substances,” he said.
A formal written plan for dealing with dry cargo aboard each vessel on the Great Lakes, with placards posted on each ship, went into effect Sept. 15.
“It is a very, very tiny amount. It is just dust,” Nekvasil said. “This washdown is occurring over a very, very long period of time.
“The amount of coal dust on the bottom of the lake is the equivalent of three cups over the size of a football field,” Nekvasil said.
The rule has no sunset clause, so it will remain in effect indefinitely. Lake freighters must keep track of discharges and report them to the Coast Guard through February 2015, said Lisa Novak, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.
The record-keeping requirement remains in effect indefinitely, she said.
The rule defines bulk dry cargo residues as those materials that are non-hazardous and non-toxic. It also imposes various restrictions, depending on what’s being dumped and where.
Limestone, for instance, cannot be dumped in Lake Erie within three miles from shore. Coal and salt residues can only be dumped 13.8 miles from shore and iron ore remnants have to be discharged at least six miles into the lake.
“Such a policy appears to be in direct opposition to efforts underway to restore and protect the Great Lakes,” said the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.
“Regardless of whether these residues would pose a direct and immediate threat to human or environmental health through the practice of cargo sweeping, these materials are inherently not non-toxic and non-hazardous,” said the group, which represents 11 native tribes in the region.
The rule sparked debate from environmental law scholars who argue it might be illegal when considering superseding treaties like the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act of 1972, among other laws and rules.
“We believe that ending dry cargo dumping is the only alternative that is consistent with federal and international law,” said the Alliance for the Great Lakes and National Wildlife Federation, a five-member coalition of environmental groups.