Senate blocks bill to end ‘patchwork’ of ballast water discharge rules


When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Coast Guard and 25 states all regulate ballast water discharges, it leads to chaos, according to organizations representing commercial shipping interests.

For almost a decade, groups like the American Great Lakes Ports Association (AGLPA) and American Waterways Operators (AWO) have advocated for a single federal regulation governing these discharges. But on April 18, a procedural motion to take up the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) stalled in the U.S. Senate on a 56-42 vote.

VIDA is the central component of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2017, which at press time still had not advanced.

“It would have put in place federal regulations that would be administered by the United States Coast Guard, and it would remove the EPA and various state governments from regulating vessel discharges,” said Steve Fisher, executive director of the AGLPA.

The Clean Water Act gives state environmental agencies the ability to add regulations of their own to EPA ballast water guidelines. Environmental groups strongly oppose VIDA since it removes the EPA’s authority to set and enforce vessel discharge standards and instead allows the Coast Guard to administer a single federal standard. However, the bill does require the Coast Guard to consult with the EPA periodically to evaluate the effectiveness of ballast discharge rules.

Fisher expressed disappointment with the Senate’s decision.

“We’re not against regulations to ensure protection of the environment. It’s this patchwork of regulations that makes no sense to us,” he said.

Under VIDA, the Coast Guard’s current ballast water management rules — which place restrictions on the amount of microorganisms per a given volume of water that vessels can legally discharge — would apply in all U.S. territorial waters.

In its comments on these 2012 rules, the EPA Science Advisory Board stated that the proposed discharge standard “will result in a substantial reduction in the concentration of living organisms in the vast majority of ballast water discharges.”

Still, environmental advocates like Molly Flanagan, vice president for policy at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, believe that the Coast Guard shouldn’t be setting ballast water standards.

“States have a strong interest in ensuring that the Great Lakes are protected and that they are doing what they can to make sure that additional aquatic invasive species are not introduced,” she said. “The Alliance for the Great Lakes feels the Environmental Protection Agency is the agency that should be setting the standard and the Coast Guard should be ensuring that technologies work safely on vessels.”

Since 2008, when a federal court struck down a discharge exemption for commercial vessels in the Clean Water Act, shipping companies have had to deal with geographical and administrative hurdles.

“Our vessels transit the waters of many states,” said Mary McCarthy of New Orleans-based Canal Barge Co. “It is difficult for our vessel crews, who should be focused on navigating safely, to try to determine which regulations apply where.”

McCarthy also said that because the EPA and individual states cannot easily enforce their ballast water regulations, her company has to submit “large amounts of records” to prove their compliance.

“The main reason that the Coast Guard makes sense is it has a field staff deployed in every port in the United States to inspect and regulate ships. The EPA doesn’t. So if the EPA were to regulate, they lack that infrastructure,” Fisher said.

A spokesman for VIDA sponsor Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., stated that there are ongoing discussions regarding changes to the bill. The spokesman also said that since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tabled the legislation, “it can be brought back up for a vote at any time.”

By Professional Mariner Staff