Next year, commercial shipping could disappear from the St. Lawrence Seaway, devastating the Great Lakes economies and throwing thousands of people out of work, thanks to an obscure regulation passed by the State of New York.
"As it stands right now, they have a regulation that comes into play in Jan. 1, 2012 that ships won't be able to comply with," Tim Meisner, director-general of marine policy at Transport Canada, said in an interview.
"So unless there are some changes to their rules or regulations, it's a reasonable possibility" that much of the economic activity on the Seaway will shut down.
No one really thinks it will go that far. But New York and the shipping industry are locked in a game of environmental chicken, and no one as yet seems ready to blink.
It's all about ballast water. Ships whose holds are not full take on water (ballast) to maintain stability. When they approach port, they flush the water out.
But in flushing, species picked up in one body of water can enter another. That's how the zebra mussel and more than 180 other invasive species made their way into the Great Lakes.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has imposed rules that require ships to flush their ballast water out at sea. But the New York state government thinks the new rules are too lax. So back in 2008 it set its own standards, which are far, far tougher than the IMO rules. They go into effect on Jan. 1.
You can't enter or leave the Seaway without transiting New York waters, so New York has the power to effectively shut the Seaway down.
The shipping industry protests that the technology doesn't exist to meet the New York rules. But environmental organizations maintain that the ships' owners are dragging their heels.
"Our theory is, let the standard be set, and that will drive technology that will figure out how to meet that standard," said Marc Smith, policy manager for the National Wildlife Federation. Governments have been doing exactly that for decades with fuel-emission standards.
Mr. Smith dismisses any notion of the Seaway being shut down, saying that the regulations have numerous "off-ramps" to exempt vessels in the event the technology doesn't catch up in time.
Besides, he points out, New York in any case would have trouble enforcing the new rules because the state lacks the authority to board and seize ships.
But the ship owners are emphatic that their vessels will not enter New York waters if they cannot comply with the ballast water standards because they would lose their insurance.
"Seaway traffic will stop," if the regulation is implemented, Terence Bowles, president and CEO of Canada's St. Lawrence Seaway Administration, warned recently. "New York is being unreasonable on this particular issue. All the carriers are extremely concerned about it."
The regulation survived a legal challenge - states, like provinces, have the right and duty to protect water quality within their borders -so the best hope now is to get New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, to set aside the regulation. The problem is that the governor is a big supporter of the new rules.
Nonetheless, Mr. Meisner is optimistic that a way will be found around the impasse. The consequences simply don't bear contemplation. The iron and steel industry and agricultural exports, to name just two, couldn't survive without the Seaway. The Canadian government is lobbying heavily in Albany to get the new rules postponed.
The Council of Great Lakes Governors, of which the premiers of Ontario and Quebec are full members, has done fine work in recent years in protecting the water quality of the Great Lakes.
Wisconsin would also like to see stricter ballast-water standards. If New York temporarily suspended the new regulations, the council could look at setting a Seaway-wide standard, with Ottawa and Washington ratifying whatever was agreed on.
Here's hoping all sides figure something out. Fifty million tons of shipping annually depends on it.