WASHINGTON – Many people already know about the quagga mussel, the zebra mussel and the round goby that now infest the Great Lakes after stowing away and then getting released from the ballast tanks of international ships.

Fearing that new regulations will allow more invaders like these, the National Wildlife Federation said Wednesday that it has joined other environmental groups in a lawsuit aimed at tightening rules for the release of ship ballast tanks.

In announcing the latest legal action, the National Wildlife Federation noted that ballast water has been responsible for most of the alien invaders that have changed the Great Lakes in recent decades, causing at least $200 million in damage annually.

“Zebra mussels, quagga mussels, spiny water fleas and round gobies have turned the Great Lakes ecosystem on its head, altering the food web and threatening the health of native fish and wildlife,” the environmental group said.

At issue is a permit the Environmental Protection Agency announced in late March that’s set to take effect in December. The permit, which replaces rules that had been in place for five years, further regulates the ballast water that ships carry in their hulls to keep them balanced – water that can contain invasive species that are new to the Great Lakes.

“In our opinion, there’s really no difference” between the new permit and the old one, said Marc Smith, senior policy manager at the National Wildlife Federation.

“The EPA’s permit will not adequately protect the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters from ballast water invaders,” Smith added. “This weak permit leaves the door open for future harm to our environment and economy.”

The EPA said in March that the new permit sets the first standards for the numbers of invasive species that can be present in ballast water before it is released into the Great Lakes basin.

“These limitations will achieve significant reductions in the number of living organisms discharged via ballast water,” the agency said at the time.

The EPA said the new permit will regulate 27 kinds of discharges from commercial vessels that are more than 79 feet in length.

In addition, the new permit brings federal ballast water standards in line with those of many Great Lakes states and the U.S. Coast Guard. It also includes new regulations mandating that ballast water treatment systems are operating correctly, the agency said.

But Smith’s group said that the new federal standards fall short of what federal law and previous court decisions require.

“This is a living pollutant that should be regulated and stopped under the Clean Water Act,” Smith said of ballast water.

Environmental groups have been raising that argument – and dragging the EPA into court to press that point – for two decades.

While environmentalists have been pushing for tougher ballast water restrictions to protect the lakes from additional invasions, shipping interests – concerned about compliance costs – have consistently pressed the EPA to keep regulations at a minimum.

And in the latest permit, the shippers scored several wins, as the EPA eliminated duplicative reporting requirements, expanded electronic record-keeping and reduced self-inspection requirements for out-of-service vessels.

What concerns the environmentalists, though, is that the permit’s supposedly tougher limits on invasive species in ballast water will be, by the EPA’s admission, difficult to enforce.

“The lack of available data and information prevents a precise quantification of the risk associated with ballast water discharges,” the agency acknowledged in comments before finalizing the ballast water permit.

In other words, “there’s no comprehensive monitoring to follow up” to see if ships are discharging water laden with invasive species into the Great Lakes, Smith said.

The National Wildlife Federation filed its lawsuit in federal court in Washington, while the Natural Resources Defense Council and Northwest Environmental Advocates sued in other federal courts.

The cases will be consolidated in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, as the Clean Water Act requires that such cases be filed first at that appellate level. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is handling the lawsuit on behalf of the EPA, declined to comment.