Judge rules to stop nautical practice blamed for polluting waterways

Lawsuit against EPA focuses on ballast water


SAN FRANCISCO - A judge has ordered repeal of a federal regulation that has allowed ships to discharge ballast water freely into U.S. harbors and coastal waters.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said last week that the 1972 Clean Water Act prohibits the practice.

Government and other reports have identified ballast water as the main source for the spread of invasive foreign species - more than 500 of them - that have been ruining U.S. wetlands and driving out native marine plant and animal life.

The Ocean Conservancy, one of six environmental groups that sued in U.S. District Court here, said the order handed down Wednesday "will prevent a vast amount of pollutants from the shipping industry from entering U.S. waters."

A Justice Department spokesman said lawyers were discussing the government's next steps with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the defendant in the lawsuit.

Illston's opinion relied on a Clean Water Act provision that requires a permit before a ship may discharge any biological or other pollutant into navigable U.S. waters.

The EPA, which enforces the water law, has long exempted by regulation the dumping of ballast water, calling it "incidental to the normal operation of a vessel." Ships take on or dump ballast water as needed to compensate for weight changes as cargo is loaded or unloaded.

The agency maintained that Congress had acquiesced to the exemption by failing to register objections to it over many years.

After the agency turned down a repeal petition in 2003, the environmental groups sued.

Their focus was San Francisco Bay and the Great Lakes, but the decision, unless reversed on appeal, will apply nationally.

Illston said the EPA exemption contradicted the clear meaning of the statute and exceeded the agency's regulatory authority.

She quoted EPA estimates that more than 21 billion gallons of ballast are discharged annually into the nation's waters.

An agency report said "more than 10,000 marine species each day hitch rides around the globe in the ballast water of cargo ships."

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