Coast Guard tightens rules on handling of laker cargo residues

It’s a long-established operating practice for dry bulkers in the Great Lakes to sweep or wash overboard any dry cargo residues (DCR) remaining on vessel decks and conveyor belt tunnels after loading or unloading. This has been an ongoing issue for environmentalists and is the subject of recent U.S. Coast Guard regulatory changes.

The new rule requires cargo carriers “to keep records of loading, unloading and discharges of DCR and encourages lake carriers to use control measures to reduce the amount of DCR entering the waters of the Great Lakes.” The number of sensitive areas where all discharges are prohibited was also increased in response to specific pressure by environmental groups.

Public comments prior to the Sept. 28, 2008, Interim Rule had included calls to redesign existing ship conveyors or using water mist on ships and ashore to reduce cargo dust. Capt. William C. Peterson, general manager of Key Lakes Inc., which operates eight bulkers on the four upper Great Lakes, testified that a zero discharge policy requiring washdown water to be pumped to shoreside treatment facilities “would be a considerable expense” and would present operating difficulties due to the remote locations of some port facilities.

The Coast Guard’s new interim rule is based in part on a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). Peterson noted that under existing regulations and vessel operations, “no harm will come to the environment, but Great Lakes shipping will remain the most cost-effective way to move large quantities of dry-bulk cargoes.”

As the regulatory process continues, Glen Nekvasil, vice president of communications with the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers’ Association, concurred with Peterson.

“This issue has been studied for 10 years and has not found any real negative environmental impacts to the environment,” Nekvasil said. “The iron ore, coal and limestone cargoes are non-toxic and non-hazardous. The current policy works to protect the environment and allows Great Lakes’ shipping to continue to operate efficiently.”

The issues are complex and locally sensitive. Lawrence J. Toth, environmental planner with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said a particular concern was damage to fish spawning grounds along Lake Erie’s shore. Toth called for no discharges of limestone and other clean stones within three statue miles of shore. Allowing sweeping of residue overboard “is inconsistent with the Federal Clean Water Act” and “the USCG should reevaluate the alternatives available to minimize or eliminate dry cargo residue discharges and their potential effects on Lake Erie,” he stated.

Finding the correct regulatory balance is an ongoing challenge. According to a Coast Guard statement, “Continued DCR discharges have only a minor and indirect impact and prohibition of continued discharges could impose substantial economic costs. …We intend to open new rulemaking to consider other regulatory measures to further reduce the volume of Great Lakes DCR discharges.”

Richard O. Aichele

By Professional Mariner Staff