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Lawmakers take on fish disease fight

ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators have taken their first look at what would be the Great Lakes toughest law in regulating when and how ships could dump ballast water into Lake Superior.

Members of the House Game, Fish and Forestry Division, as well as Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials, found plenty of places they would like to tweak the proposal, but there appeared to be agreement the concept to prevent invasive species and diseases was acceptable. No vote was taken Monday night.

The bill by Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, would require a permit before ships could dump ballast water into Superior and require ship operators to meet specific standards about how to ensure no dangerous organisms are in the discharged water.

The bill primarily is aimed at stemming the spread of viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a disease that affects 28 fish species and is spreading from the eastern Great Lakes toward Superior. No VHS has been found in Superior fish.

The Pollution Control Agency on Friday announced it plans to establish regulations that could be similar to the Hansen bill, although details are to be worked out. Public hearings in MPCA offices are planned for the afternoon of March 3 in St. Paul and morning of March 4 in Duluth.

Assistant PCA Commissioner Paul Eger said he agrees with many on the committee that federal regulations would be best, but if they don't come about the agency wants to have state rules ready by Oct. 1.

The Twin Ports of Duluth-Superior have far more ballast discharged than other Great Lakes ports.

Duluth environmentalist David Zentner said private ships should not abuse Lake Superior water.

"We want these ships to meet their responsibilities," he said. "They are using a common resource."

Added Zentner: "The federal performance has been so pathetic that the state needs to act."

Adolph Ojard of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority said he prefers the solution come from Washington. With ships moving from state to state, and even country to country, it is impossible for a state to adequately regulate ballast actions, he said.

But he did not close the door to the industry working with Minnesota.

"What we do here is going to have a large impact on the port and north Minnesota," he said.

Ojard said there is no proof a ship's ballast brought VHS into the Great Lakes.

"We are not the bad boy on VHS," he said.

Ballast is water that empty or nearly empty ships take on to maintain stability as they travel from port to port.

Henry Van Offelen of Detroit Lakes, a scientist with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, told the committee that VHS does best in cool lakes like Superior. He said the fishing industry alone could lose millions of dollars if VHS spreads toward Duluth.

There is no way to eradicate the VHS virus once it arrives, Van Offelen said.

After 30 years of meetings about how to keep invasive species and diseases out of the Great Lakes, it is time for action, Van Offelen added.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.