Congress considering strict new ballast water standards

This Hyde Guardian system on the cruise ship Celebrity Mercury employs filtration and ultra-violet radtion to remove and kill organisms in ballast water. The system, installed by the ship’s crew during normal operations, was comissioned in January 2007.

A bill pending in the U.S. Congress to prevent the introduction of aquatic invasive species by requiring the treatment of ballast water aboard ships would require action by vessel operators as early as next year, with discharged ballast to be free of living organisms by 2015.

Nonnative species riding in the ballast tanks of oceangoing vessels have taken a toll on ecosystems from Maine to Alaska, often with economic consequences. Although many of the invaders — plants, animals, bacteria and viruses — don’t survive long, others gain a foothold in their new environment and displace native species, degrade native habitats and spread disease.
Pushed by both states and environmental groups to establish a tough national standard for protection, the U.S. House of Representatives on April 24 passed the Ballast Water Treatment Act — part of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2008 (HR 2830) — requiring the installation of treatment technology aboard vessels that meets the International Maritime Organization standard by as early as Jan. 1, 2009. Among the performance requirements are provisions that ballast water contain “less than one living organism per 10 cubic meters that is 50 or more micrometers in minimum dimension,†along with limitations on colony-forming microbes.
In addition, ships would be required to begin installing equipment in 2012 to meet a standard 100 times more stringent than the IMO benchmark, which currently is not being enforced by the United States because the provision hasn’t been ratified by at least 30 of the IMO’s member states. By 2015, the bill sets the goal of zero discharge of viable organisms in ballast water.
“The United States is going to set the bar for standards,†said Jennifer Nalbone, campaign director for navigation and invasive species for Great Lakes United, a coalition dedicated to preserving and restoring the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. “We’re literally going to accelerate technological development and create a much higher level of protection worldwide. If anyone wants to do business with (the United States), they’re going to have to do a heck of a lot better than the IMO standard.â€
While the technology exists to disinfect ballast water — primarily through the use of chemicals, irradiation by ultraviolet light or the depletion of oxygen, usually preceded by filtration — all three methods have drawbacks. Water treated with chemicals normally needs to be neutralized before it is discharged to prevent damage to the environment; UV systems are not as effective in water with high turbidity; and deoxygenating can take up to four days to achieve results, making the length of a ship’s voyage a limiting factor.
A recent review by Lloyd’s Register of commercially available treatment systems found that the majority of units installed featured UV technology. The review cited the “relatively low capital cost, very small footprint and ease of installation†of UV systems. It also noted, however, that as of May 2007, none of the systems on the market — chemical, UV or deoxygenating — had completed the final stages of the IMO approval process, “although this may soon change.†A new review is scheduled for release sometime this year.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, each treatment system would cost between $300,000 and $1 million to install. Some ships that would be subject to the law have as many as 20 ballast tanks, and each tank would have to be fitted with a system, the CBO said.
Certain vessels would be exempt from the provisions, including those that carry all of their permanent ballast water in sealed tanks not subject to discharge, and those that continuously take on and discharge ballast water in a flow-through system. Exceptions also would be made if ballast water had to be discharged for safety reasons in an emergency.
The question of monitoring and enforcement is not largely addressed by the bill. While ship operators would be required to maintain a ballast water record book and the Coast Guard would be authorized to inspect vessels, compliance would be difficult to gauge, according to Judith Peterson of the Sea Grant College Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It is very difficult to monitor a ballast tank to say what is in it,†Peterson said. “Organisms tend to congregate in certain areas of a tank, and as a result you may have a patch of zooplankton that affects the reading. And do you want to monitor certain ships periodically, or do you want to monitor them all? They have to come up with a reasonable monitoring strategy.â€
Another potential hurdle involves the Clean Water Act as it pertains to the provisions of the bill and whether enforcement would fall to the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency or a combination of the two. The law was found applicable to vessel discharges in a federal district court ruling in 2006, but the case is being appealed.
“The bill is silent on the role of the Clean Water Act,†said Nalbone of Great Lakes United. “At the heart of the issue is whether the states believe that the Coast Guard is going to enforce this adequately. It’s obvious that the EPA and the Coast Guard both have the authority to regulate ballast water discharge, but people are nervous about giving up the enforcement provision of the Clean Water Act to the Coast Guard because (the act) has been so effective.â€
State laws regarding ballast water discharge that were in effect on Jan. 1, 2007 would remain in effect until Jan. 1, 2012, when the federal law would supersede them. States would not be permitted to enforce a stricter standard than the federal law, but they would be allowed to assist enforcement by inspecting ships and subjecting those that aren’t in compliance to fines and other penalties.
“We haven’t heard that all of the states are comfortable with their role under the federal law,†Nalbone said. “Once the bill passes, we’re going to have our work cut out for us, and making sure the states are happy with it will be critical. It’s still a long road ahead, but we’re hopeful the issues will be resolved.â€

Senate and conference committee action must still occur before the measure can become law. Other items in HR 2830, including a provision shifting more of the responsibility for security at liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals to the Coast Guard, have drawn opposition from the Bush administration, which has threatened a veto.

By Professional Mariner Staff