A federal judge has ordered the EPA to respond to a petition by three environmental groups seeking to force the agency to regulate ballast water discharges as pollution under the Clean Water Act.

The groups, which originally filed their petition three years ago, want the EPA to withdraw a regulation that exempts ships’ ballast water from the Clean Water Act.

Ballast water is routinely drawn into ships to help stabilize them during voyages and then released when the ship reaches its destination. It is the number one source of new aquatic species in U.S. coastal waters.

On Jan. 30, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco ordered the EPA to respond to the petition. “For three years, the EPA has effectively ignored our petition and allowed unregulated discharges of ballast water,” said Linda Sheehan, director of the Pacific regional office for The Ocean Conservancy.

“Now the agency will have to deal with this important issue,” she said. “Invasive species in ships’ ballast water threaten native plants and animals that are on the verge of extinction, hurt commercial fishing and shellfishing, and threaten significant damage to California’s water supply facilities.”

The Ocean Conservancy, along with the Northwest Environmental Advocates and WaterKeepers Northern California, filed suit in April 2001 to compel the EPA to respond to their January 1999 petition.

In a summary judgment, the court found that the EPA had violated the Administrative Procedures Act by its failure to respond and ordered the agency to either grant or deny the petition within 30 days.

Right now, federal law encourages vessels to exchange ballast water at sea before entering ports because organisms in high-salinity ocean water are less likely to survive when released into less salty coastal water. The law requires that ships report how they handled ballast water when they arrive in port.

But a recent Bay Program report indicated that only 22 percent of vessels made such a report when they arrived in the Chesapeake, and no penalty exists for failing to do so.

Also, existing regulations do not require ships moving from port-to-port along the coast to exchange ballast water, or to provide ballast water information when arriving in the next port.

More than 21 billion gallons of ballast water from international ports is discharged into U.S. waters each year..