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WASHINGTON — Political maneuvering over invasive species and pollution standards has reached Hawaii’s waters.
In April, Senate Democrats in Washington blocked legislation that would have exempted cargo ships and other vessels that discharge their ballast water into the ocean from Clean Water Act oversight and other state regulations meant to prevent the spread of potentially harmful organisms.
The legislation initially had bipartisan support, including from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who was a co-sponsor of the Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge Act. It would have created a single federal standard overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard rather than the Environmental Protection Agency.
Environmental groups, as well as 10 attorneys general from Maine to California, were worried at the time about the proposed regulations, saying the bill was an attempt by industry lobbyists to dismantle rules that protect the country’s waters from the “scourge of invasive species.”
Ships take on ballast water as a means to maintain stability and balance. But when a vessel fills its ballast tank with water, particularly from the ocean around the ship, it can also pick up plants and animals. This is often how invasive species are spread.
One of the best known — and egregious — examples is the zebra mussel, which infested the Great Lakes with ecosystem-changing consequences. Hawaii, too, has suffered from invasive species, such as the snowflake coral, hitching rides in vessel ballast tanks, and the bill has raised concerns at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
When the bill failed as part of a large Coast Guard reauthorization package, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lashed out at Democrats for flip-flopping. One of the senators he called out by name was Schatz, who ultimately voted against the legislation.
Schatz was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
The bill, which has been introduced in various forms over the years, is now getting renewed attention in Hawaii.
Former Hawaii state Sen. Will Espero recently put his name to an op-ed in Civil Beat that advocated for passage of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act. In the piece, Espero said the legislation was critical to both protect the environment and ensure a thriving “ocean economy” in Hawaii — which he pegged at $18 billion.
“The Hawaii maritime industry supports thousands of jobs, ensuring that goods, visitors and commerce flow to and from our islands,” the Community Voice said. “Each of these maritime jobs depends on the steady flow of goods transported via maritime shipping to our state.
“While seemingly simple, shipping goods and commodities is heavily regulated by both federal and state agencies.”
These regulations, the commentary added, are onerous and can prevent vessel owners from investing in new technology that will help them streamline operations and bolster their bottom line.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Espero acknowledged he didn’t actually write the piece.
He said it was provided to him by an individual from a “lobbying advocacy group” with an interest in the legislation. He declined to name either the individual or the organization.
Federal lobbying disclosure forms show that several companies and special interests, including Matson, the American Petroleum Institute, BP, American Rivers and the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, hired lobbyists to track to the bill.
One such group that supported the legislation is The American Waterways Operators, an organization that advocates for the nation’s tugboat, towboat and barge industry.
The organization issued a press release the day after the bill failed to get the necessary 60 votes to move forward in the Senate that was specifically critical of several Democrats and one independent, Angus King, of Maine, who had previously pledged support for the legislation.
Among the Senate Democrats named were Schatz and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Chris Coons of Delaware, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In a statement, Thomas Allegretti, the president and CEO of The American Waterways Operators, said the outcome of April’s vote was a “great disappointment.”
He noted that the proposal was supported by more than 300 organizations, including port authorities, labor unions and owners of fishing vessels and charter boats.
“Our government does not require airplanes, trains or trucks to disrupt transit, switch out technologies and take on exceedingly high costs to meet a different environmental standard every time the vehicle crosses state lines,” Allegretti said.
“To require this of commercial vessels defies common sense and threatens the viability of maritime commerce — the most environmentally friendly mode of cargo transport — throughout the country, including in states like Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Virginia.”
Because Schatz wasn’t available for an interview Wednesday, it’s unclear why he ultimately opposed a bill he previously supported.
Hirono issued a statement saying it’s important to “strike the correct balance” between state and federal oversight so that regional matters can be addressed effectively without placing an excessive burden on the industry.
Like Schatz, Hirono receives campaign support from the sea transportation industry in Hawaii, including Matson.
“In April, I voted to provide more time for discussions to address concerns raised by several of my Senate colleagues from the Great Lakes region,” Hirono said. “I will continue to engage with a full range of stakeholders in Hawaii to incorporate their views and feedback as we consider how to proceed.”
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources has had concerns with the language of the bill and whether it would make it harder to protect state waters from alien species.
Jules Kuo, the ballast water and hull fouling coordinator for DLNR, said her agency has been working with Hawaii’s senators to ensure the rules are written in a manner that protects the state while being practical for the shipping industry.
One of the problems with the bill, she said, is that the Coast Guard doesn’t have the same level of expertise as DLNR when it comes to testing ballast water for alien species.
She said the bill also would pre-empt DLNR from managing vessels that move between the islands. That’s a problem, she said, because Honolulu Harbor has some alien species that aren’t found in other ports in the state.
Kuo said Hawaii already has nearly 350 alien species that have taken hold here as a result of ballast water transfer or attaching itself to the hull of a ship.
“The state of Hawaii really does have the worst alien species problem,” Kuo said. “We want to be able to protect our waters from non-native or invasive species from being further introduced. As of now we have a developed lab and the expertise to do more thorough inspections of the water that comes out of the ballast tanks.”
Under the bill those inspections would likely have gone away. She said the DLNR also is worried about exemptions in the bill for certain commercial fishing vessels.
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