Maritime industry wins three-year VGP exemption for small vessels

Congress has granted operators of small commercial vessels a reprieve from new discharge rules that were set go into effect in December, with debate continuing on a measure that would make the exemption permanent.

Under provisions of the Small Vessel General Permit (sVGP), commercial vessels less than 79 feet would be subject to regulation of discharges “incidental to normal operation” — bilge water, ballast water, deck runoff and graywater among them. Operators would have to manage these discharges, conduct quarterly vessel inspections, keep records and report any violation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

The EPA estimates that between 115,000 and 138,000 vessels would be affected. The majority are commercial fishing boats, but the total includes tugboats, towboats, research vessels, tour boats, offshore supply boats and freight barges operating in U.S. waters.

While commercial vessels 79 feet and longer have been subject to similar standards under the Vessel General Permit (VGP), smaller vessels were exempt under a moratorium approved by Congress. The reprieve was scheduled to expire on Dec. 18, which would have put sVGP into play the next day.

Congress intervened, however, extending the moratorium on Dec. 10 — for three years — as the Senate continued to consider the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA). That bill, introduced last March by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, would establish uniform national discharge standards and permanently exempt commercial vessels under 79 feet from the provisions. 

Craig Montesano, director of legislative affairs for the American Waterways Operators (AWO), told Professional Mariner that prior to the recent lame-duck session of Congress, lawmakers had been content to extend the small-vessel exemption in two-year increments. Support has been growing for VIDA, however, in a push to streamline the patchwork of state discharge regulations.

“I think there is a real bipartisan interest in doing this comprehensive fix,” Montesano said in mid-November, citing 32 co-sponsors of the bill in the Senate. “Basically a simple extension for one part of the industry at the expense of others was not something that (leading advocates) were too thrilled about this time around.”

Caitlyn Stewart, senior manager of regulatory affairs for the AWO, said many of the group’s members were waiting for action by Congress before implementing procedures to comply with sVGP. If the permit does go into effect, she said the consensus was that it could be easily implemented. 

“There are a lot of best management practices in it that most members who are familiar with the Vessel General Permit, or even those who are in compliance with AWO’s Responsible Carrier Program, are meeting already,” Stewart said. “So it’s just a matter of making sure that they have the paperwork covered — it’s a very simple permit from a paperwork perspective — and that they have their crews trained. Most of these things they’re already doing just as a matter of good practice from an environmental and safety stewardship standpoint.” 

The wait-and-see approach among operators was reflected by the slow response last fall to a program offered by the MARPOL Training Institute (MTI) of Middletown, Calif. The company offers sVGP training online and as software available for installation on office networks.

“Some of the shrimper organizations in Texas, in Brownsville and Port Arthur, are paying attention to it, but beyond that we’ve had very little response from the industry,” Capt. Bob Hall, managing partner of MTI, said in late October. “It surprises us. It applies to a lot of vessels, so you think they’d be all over it. But they’re not.”

By Professional Mariner Staff