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Freshwater Ballast Testing Facility Opens

Freshwater Ballast Testing Facility

"This ballast water issue is a hard one to crack!" joked Allegra Cangelosi, senior policy analyst with the Northeast-Midwest Institute, as she finally broke a champagne bottle filled with ballast water. Cangelosi was attempting to christen the world's first freshwater testing facility for ballast water treatment technologies. Like the quest to manage invasive organisms, the christening required persistence (three tries) and ingenuity. Cangelosi broke the bottle after the opening ceremony by extracting it from an engineered apparatus and simply smashing it on a pier extending into the Duluth-Superior Harbor.

The new $850,000 facility is part of the Great Ships Initiative, a $3.5 million effort that brings representatives from the maritime industry, government, environmental groups, and academia together in an unprecedented way to speed the availability of treatment systems for ballast water. The facility, on Montreal Pier in Superior, is designed to evaluate technologies that use ultraviolet light, filtration, deoxygenation, and other methods to remove living things from ballast water.

Allegra Congelosi and the stubborn champagne bottle

Allegra Congelosi and the stubborn champagne bottle.

With a roar like that of a welder's torch, water surges from the Duluth-Superior Harbor through a thigh-thick pipe toward four holding tanks. Along the course of this simulated ballast system, researchers collect water samples, examining them for signs of life. By fall 2007, Great Ships Initiative cooperators hope that ballast treatment technology companies will be hooking their latest inventions to the testing facility, which includes the pipe and tank infrastructure, a computer shed used for controlling water flow and direction, and a mobile laboratory.

The lab is compact and efficient. Up to six people will identify and quantify species flowing through the simulated ballast system as long as the water is not turning into ice. They must also determine if the organisms are living or dead. But, how do you know if something like a diatom is alive?

Euan Reavie, research associate at the University of Minnesota Duluth, works on the algae side of the trailer lab ó literally an armís length away from where another set of biologists examine water samples for tiny animals. He explained that they add dye, which makes dead plant tissue, including diatoms, glow red under the right light conditions.

"Euan's looking for the light," laughed Mary Balcer, director of the University of Wisconsin-Superior's Lake Superior Research Institute, who is responsible for laboratory and fieldwork involving tiny animals. "On the other hand, I just poke a zooplankter to see if itís alive."

Balcer, Reavie, and their staff are refining sampling methods, optimizing data collection, and assuring quality control. Since this is a freshwater testing environment, saltwater standards and protocols may not be as effective or even relevant. Among other things, the researchers have found that groupings of organisms can change dramatically within an hour, let alone a season. Numbers can even change by an order of magnitude when a seiche washes into the harbor. Balcer is also finding that different species of zooplankton have different survival rates after being bashed around in a ballast system.

"Although the researchers are developing new methods, they're not doing so in isolation," said Dale Bergeron, Minnesota Sea Grant's maritime extension educator. "They are connected to treatment testing sites in other locales and they are involved in international conversations about controlling the movement of non-native species."

Some might recall the Great Lakes Ballast Technology Demonstration Project that sat on a barge in the Duluth-Superior Harbor in 1998. That project, a collaboration between many of the same players, focused on optimizing a filtering system to remove organisms from water. The new treatment testing facility takes a broader approach to the challenge of removing species from ballast water.

"The facility you see here was constructed to incubate ballast water treatment technologies and identify the most promising treatment alternatives," said Cangelosi. "This is the step between laboratory experiments and outfitting working ships with ballast treatment systems."

As well as creating the first ballast treatment testing facility for fresh water, the Great Ships Initiative intends to help get ballast technologies operating on ships and to develop techniques for monitoring aquatic invasive species in harbors.

The University of Wisconsin-Superior and the University of Minnesota Duluth are jointly managing the Ballast Water Treatment Testing Facility, which exists through the efforts of Congressman David Obey (D-WI) and financing by the federal government, ports in the Great Lakes, and other organizations. From their offices in Washington, D.C., the Northeast-Midwest Institute, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation are heading the initiative. Minnesota Sea Grant is aiding with outreach and working with the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute Ė a project partner.

By Sharon Moen
August 2007

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