UWS ballast facility reborn

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin paddles the Brule River Thursday after visiting the University of Wisconsin-Superior ballast water treatment testing facility.

The timing and the partnering seem to be perfectly poised for a rebirth of a University of Wisconsin-Superior facility that may encourage technologies to protect the Great Lakes and other waters from introductions and spreads of invasive species. Simultaneously, the effort may help protect the region's massive merchant marine industry.

The ballast water treatment testing facility on Montreal Pier in Superior first launched in 2006 and was most recently under ownership of a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization. It has lain fallow for a couple of years, but was purchased in April by UWS and now is being relaunched through the UWS Lake Superior Research Institute (LSRI).

The facility has attracted a lot of buzz, including visits by two U.S. senators, the most recent on Thursday by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). The senator was in northern Wisconsin to bring attention to that facility, to a budget-boosted renewal of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative she’s co-sponsored and to take a trout-fishing trip along the Bois Brule River. Friday morning, she hosted a roundtable with local officials from Ashland, Bayfield and Bad River on the need to rebuild roads and bridges that can withstand natural disasters, such as severe storms and floods, and to introduce her Rebuilding Stronger Infrastructure Act that recently passed the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Baldwin told the small troop of reporters following her on the testing facility tour that she is concerned regulations being created under the 2018 Vessel Incidental Discharge law won’t be “developed by the salty coast and ignore the needs of the Great Lakes.” That law, a new subsection of the “Uniform National Standards for Discharges Incidental to Normal Operation of Vessels” added to the Clean Water Act, charges the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard with creating federal standards for vessels, a move supported by the Great Lakes maritime industry to avoid the hodgepodge of state-by-state regulations that were developing.

Matthew TenEyck, director of the LSRI, told Baldwin the institute already provides data for projects with the EPA and Coast Guard.

“We help feed the data that drives those decisions,” TenEcky said. He added that freeing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding already approved would greatly help the facility’s progress toward certification, to which Baldwin confidently named September as a month for the money.

Because of that new water discharge regulations mandate, and other strengths, the Montreal Pier testing facility might be well placed to get contracts for both large and small testing. The varying scales at which testing can be done, the fact that this is a freshwater facility with a research lab and also is land based bring advantages for entrepreneurs developing ballast water treatment technologies, said Kelsey Prihoda a LSRI program manager. That could include technologies not just for salt-water vessels on the Great Lakes, but perhaps for intra-lakes fleets that sail only within the Great Lakes system to prevent the movement of an invasive species, for example, from Lake Erie to Lake Superior.

“The confined vessels aren’t responsible for introduction (of invasive species),” she said, “but they are responsible for transporting (them).”

Treatments for Great Lakes vessels, though, may differ considerably for what is developed on salt or brackish waters, the researchers said. A chlorine-based treatment, for example, would harm freshwater vessels not coated in the way salt-water hulls are. 

The Thursday tour of the ballast water treatment testing facility showed off its ability to test tanks from 200,000 liters to 1,000 liters. The operation, once certified, will also be able to bring its testing on board ships thanks to some size-reduced collecting and monitoring equipment.

All of that, Prihoda explained, means small developers could do preliminary tests of their ballast water treatment technology at a reasonable cost and before plowing too much money into a potentially non-viable product.

After the tour, Baldwin did a short press conference outside in front of the facility tanks and pipes.

“I’ve been a huge fan of something called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” she said, pointing to bipartisan support of the GLRI. She noted that while Trump annual budgets have eliminated or substantially reduced the annual $300 million to be set aside to the eight Great Lake states through that initiative, the funding has been restored on a bi-partisan budget vote. She now has introduced a renewal of that current five-year program, which ends in 2020. It increases the annual budget to $475 million a year. The GLRI funding, appropriated through the EPA, has funded state, tribal, local, university and nongovernmental programs connected to protection of water quality within the Great Lakes system. Some $2.56 billion was appropriated between 2010 and 2017, according to the GLRI website.

“Given the challenges our Great Lakes face,” Baldwin said, “this would be an important commitment.”

Speaking about her tour of the facility, Baldwin said, “They are testing things that could be aboard ships in the years and months to come … that is very, very exciting.”

Once Baldwin wrapped up her day at the testing facility, she canoed the Bois Brule River with members of Trout Unlimited and others to highlight Wisconsin’s conservation efforts. The Brule is nicknamed “the River of Presidents” because five of them – Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower and most frequently Calvin Coolidge – trout fished on it. Reminded of that, Baldwin was asked if she, one, planned to fish trout, and two, planned to run for president.

Chuckling, Baldwin said she “would very much like” to trout fish in the afternoon and “I am not running for the president of the United States.”