ABS: Nearly half of ballast water systems ‘inoperable’ or ‘problematic’

In a recent survey of shipowners, nearly half said the ballast water management systems (BWMS) they had installed were not operating up to standards, a situation that more vessel operators may face in meeting U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) surveyed 27 shipowners regarding 220 vessels including bulk carriers, tankers, containerships and gas carriers. The owners reported that 43 percent of ballast water systems were deemed “inoperable” or “problematic.” Fifty-seven percent of the systems installed were operating properly.

“There is no doubt that post-installation challenges are being encountered, including training and crew-related issues, but also some design-related problems,” said Kathy Metcalf, president and CEO of the Chamber of Shipping of America.

The ABS report found that shipowners and operators face major challenges related to software, hardware and their crews’ ability to operate the systems correctly. The survey also revealed that vessel operators underestimated the need for ongoing training because crewmembers rotate on and off ships and also work on multiple vessels with a variety of ballast water systems.

Using a ballast water system that has received Coast Guard certification does not ensure that it will meet standards for mitigating invasive species once it enters service.

“Even if a system has passed the Coast Guard testing, there’s no guarantee that if it’s performing properly mechanically it will pass the standards once you’re out in the real world,” said Dr. Dennis King, a research professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

By contrast, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Ballast Water Convention, which entered into force Sept. 8, 2017, incorporates an “experience building” phase that includes progressive enforcement and an early focus on problems identified by port state control authorities.

While the IMO plan includes the progressive phase, it’s not as clear how the Coast Guard will handle enforcement procedures. King said the Coast Guard is essentially asking shipowners to install unproven systems and fine-tune them once they’re installed.

The industry could mount legal challenges to the Coast Guard regulations if approved systems, operated and maintained properly, still can’t meet the U.S. ballast water standards.

“Pretty soon it’s going to be clear the Coast Guard is not going to be able to enforce the regulations,” King said. “It may come down to the Coast Guard requiring vessels to have a certified system on board and the ballast discharge is not tested, or the Coast Guard doesn’t enforce penalties for systems that don’t pass.”

Vessels equipped with BWMS that do not meet standards can use contingency measures to replace ballast water treatment, including ballast water exchange, according to ABS.

The Coast Guard BWMS regulations impact about 10,000 vessels in the global merchant fleet that regularly visit U.S. ports. 

By Professional Mariner Staff