Ports group backs Great Lakes provisions in VIDA

The following is text of a news release from the American Great Lakes Ports Association (AGLPA):

(WASHINGTON) — On Wednesday, by a vote of 94-6, the U.S. Senate approved legislation (S. 140) reauthorizing programs of the U.S. Coast Guard. Included in the legislative package was a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's laws surrounding vessel discharges.

Known as the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), the legislation would reform vessel discharge rules. Currently, two federal agencies (EPA and Coast Guard) and 25 states regulate the various discharges (including ballast water) from commercial vessels. This situation has resulted in regulatory chaos. Such chaos impedes maritime commerce.

Last April, the Senate attempted to bring an earlier version of VIDA to the Senate floor. The earlier version would have simplified vessel discharge rules by consolidating all regulatory authority in the U.S. Coast Guard. It would have removed the EPA and state governments from regulating such discharges. This version was preferred by the maritime industry as being the most straightforward approach. Unfortunately, the vote on that legislation failed and the bill was blocked by opponents, which include environmental groups (who prefer EPA oversight) and state governments who want to preserve their regulatory rights.

Since April, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) and Senate Commerce Committee have been working to craft a new compromise VIDA bill. That compromise was enacted by the Senate on Wednesday. Because this legislation is a compromise, it includes both provisions that we favor and some that we disapprove of. However, on balance it is an improvement over current law and we supported its enactment. 


• Of greatest importance to the maritime industry, the legislation effectively pre-empts state regulation of vessel discharges (states may have regulations if they are identical to federal requirements). This pre-emption was critical to simplifying the regulatory landscape.
• The legislation consolidates regulatory authority over discharge standards in the EPA and tasks the Coast Guard with implementation and enforcement.
• Within two years of enactment of this new legislation, the EPA must develop new regulations governing "standards of performance" for a variety of vessel discharges (ballast water, engine cooling water, deck runoff, etc.). The new rules have to be at least as stringent as current requirements. The new rules can distinguish between vessel types, class, size, and age. The new rules are to be reviewed and (if warranted) revised every five years.
• Within two years of EPA establishing new discharge standards, the Coast Guard must develop regulations governing compliance and enforcement. The new enforcement regulations can be no less stringent than current regulations.
• The Coast Guard is to develop regulations governing treatment equipment design, testing, installation, etc.
• State governments may enforce the federal requirements (if they wish to do so).
• Ballast water exchange is required of oceangoing vessels coming into all U.S. ports.
• Ballast water management systems (treatment equipment) installed on vessels is effectively grandfathered for the life of the vessel, or the life of the equipment, or if the Coast Guard determines that there are other type-approved systems available for installation whose benefits exceed the cost of installation.
• States that currently assess fees on vessel operators may continue to do so to cover monitoring and enforcement activities. States that don’t currently have fees may assess new fees to help cover the costs of enforcement.
• The legislation establishes a special Great Lakes program under which regional requirements may be imposed. Under this program, a Great Lakes governor may petition other Great Lakes governors to jointly ask the EPA to establish more stringent standards in the Great Lakes. The endorsement of five governors is required to impose a “best management practice” on Great Lakes vessel operators that does not require installation of equipment. The endorsement of all eight Great Lakes governors is required to impose a requirement on Great Lakes vessel operators that results in the installation of new equipment on ships. The Great Lakes Commission plays an advisory role in any state proposal.  
• The legislation establishes a national scheme by which states may petition EPA to establish state “no discharge zones.” Under this scheme, EPA must determine that alternative discharge facilities and infrastructure exist to accept vessel discharges.
• The legislation gives EPA broad authority to impose so-called "best management practices" on vessels to address an invasive species emergency.

The legislation will now be considered by the House of Representatives. Because there is very little time remaining in the 115th Congress, there is a good chance that the House will simply vote on the Senate-passed version.

Special thanks

Wednesday's vote is the outcome of months of work to craft compromise legislation. A great deal of thanks goes to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee. Additional recognition goes to a small group of Great Lakes senators who worked to ensure that the legislation did not disadvantage Great Lakes vessel operators and ports. Many thanks to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

By Professional Mariner Staff