Coast Guard issues ballast water rules but uncertainties remain

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued new rules for ballast water discharge treatment, but it remains unclear if vessel operators will face conflicting regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and several U.S. states.

On March 23, the Coast Guard published its final ballast water rules that will require onboard ballast water management systems in addition to the mid-ocean ballast water exchange that the industry has been using for decades to combat introduction of invasive species into waterways.

The standards in the first phase of the Coast Guard rules, which took effect June 21, are in line with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) discharge limits set in 2004. The regulations establish a standard for the allowable concentration of living organisms in ballast water discharged from ships in the waters of the United States. The Coast Guard expects to announce a stricter second phase standard in 2016 after additional research and analysis.

The new rules require that discharge from ballast tanks have no more than 10 living organisms per milliliter for organisms less than 50 micrometers and greater than or equal to 10 micrometers. Ten living organisms per cubic meter, or 264 gallons, is acceptable for organisms greater than or equal to 50 micrometers.

"What a shipowner has to do and doesn't have to do isn't entirely clear yet. If we only worried about the Coast Guard, it's clear; but shipowners don't have that luxury."
-Steven Fisher

Vessels constructed before Dec. 1, 2013, are required to install water treatment systems, such as UV radiation, electrolysis, or centrifugation, following their first dry dock after 2014 or 2016, depending on the vessel’s ballast water capacity. New vessels constructed after Dec. 1, 2013, must have approved ballast water management systems onboard at the time of delivery.

In addition to the Coast Guard regulations, the EPA is in the process of revising the Vessel General Permit, which covers some 26 types of discharges from a vessel, including ballast water. The new EPA rules are expected to take effect in December 2013.

Those federal rules are not the only standards ship operators may have to meet. Under the Clean Water Act, every U.S. state and some tribal jurisdictions have the power to enact their own regulatory schemes that are stricter than the EPA proposal.

U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, issued a statement calling for simplification of the regulatory scheme.

He said it was unreasonable to ask vessel operators to comply with the differing standards developed by the Coast Guard and the EPA “and as many as 29 different, contradictory and unachievable state and tribal standards.”

A few states have proposed water treatment standards far beyond the capability of current technology to meet or even to determine if a water treatment system is achieving the required level of performance.

“What a shipowner has to do and doesn’t have to do isn’t entirely clear yet,” said Steven Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association. “If we only worried about the Coast Guard, it’s clear; but shipowners don’t have that luxury.”

The Coast Guard has yet to establish a process to approve treatment technologies that meet the new standards. At this point 19 water treatment systems have been approved by classification societies in accordance with IMO standards. These systems will be accepted by the Coast Guard as an alternative management system for five years after the compliance date.

Shipowners shouldn’t wait until the last minute to figure out how the regulations impact them. For example, there are exemptions from treating water for vessels that operate in a single captain of the port zone or use municipal water sources for ballast water. However, the proposed EPA regulations do not contain the same exemptions.

“Vessel owners will want to find all the exemptions that apply to them to find the most cost-effective means of compliance,” said Kevin Gilheany, a maritime compliance consultant. “That takes a lot of work and a little bit of expertise.”

In the meantime, vessel owners are faced with taking a risk on new construction or retrofitting ballast water treatment systems. Because the treatment systems are not yet approved, the Coast Guard estimates some 600 new vessels will have compliance dates deferred from 2012 to Dec. 1, 2013, which is concurrent with the EPA’s Vessel General Permit timeline.

Some early adopters are going ahead with installation, either because they have vessels under construction or want to evaluate equipment for their fleet, said Jim Mackey, key accounts manager for Hyde Marine Inc., a manufacturer of ballast water treatment systems.

That can be a big risk when the average water treatment system could cost well over a million dollars, according to comments from the industry to the Coast Guard.

“You want to select a technology that has a high probability of gaining Coast Guard type approval,” Mackey said. “It’s really a matter of making a low-risk decision.”

While the enforcement scheme for the Coast Guard regulations is expected to follow standard procedures, it’s unclear how the EPA or state environmental agencies will oversee compliance, Fisher said.

“What we don’t know is whether the Coast Guard will enforce the EPA’s rules for them,” he said.

One potential roadblock for shipowners will be the sheer volume of vessels requiring approved water treatment systems, marine engineering and dry dock space.

“The total amount of burden that it will put on the marine industry is quite large,” Mackey said.

By Professional Mariner Staff