Vessel discharge act to streamline rules, encourage investment


Soon, vessels navigating United States waters will see a uniform standard governing ballast discharges following passage of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA).

A broad coalition, including vessel owners, ports and labor unions, advocated for the act over the past decade, according to Jennifer Carpenter of the American Waterways Operators (AWO). The legislation, part of the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018, was signed into law Dec. 4 by President Trump. It cleared both houses of Congress the prior month with bipartisan support.

“The fundamental issue was that we just had a system for regulating vessel discharges that didn’t work. … We had two federal agencies and many states that wanted to get involved,” Carpenter said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both set ballast water regulations to limit the spread of invasive species, but 25 states have their own regulations under the Clean Water Act. VIDA authorizes the EPA to set a single federal standard, with Coast Guard enforcement. A previous version of the bill from earlier in 2018 authorized the Coast Guard to set and enforce the regulations.

Unlike the EPA, the Coast Guard has staff in every port to enforce regulations, said Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association. Enforcement under the EPA’s Vessel General Permit (VGP) forces crews to keep large amounts of paperwork on hand, according to industry representatives.

Carpenter said that failure to comply with the VGP has resulted in citizen lawsuits. VIDA, she said, gives citizens the ability “to bring a suit against EPA or the Coast Guard, but not against individual vessel owners.” Suits must go through the federal District of Columbia Circuit Court, the legislation states.

Previously, the five-year VGP renewal cycle meant that standards could change quickly, which has discouraged investment in ballast water treatment systems, Carpenter said. Under VIDA, there is no automatic VGP renewal, but rather “an orderly process for raising standards over time as technology improves,” she said.

The possibility of closer harmonization with International Maritime Organization ballast water standards could bode well for ultraviolet (UV) treatment systems. The Coast Guard must now consider using most probable number (MPN) analysis when type-approving ballast water management technologies. This method considers organisms that can’t reproduce to be effectively dead.

MPN “opens the market back up for low-pressure UV systems, and it can also increase UV system competitiveness from a power consumption standpoint,” said Mark Riggio, president of the Ballastwater Equipment Manufacturers Association.

Type-approval changes, like most of VIDA, have not taken effect, and the current regulatory framework will stay intact until new rules are finalized. The EPA has just under two years to set standards for ballast discharges, then the Coast Guard has another two years “to promulgate regulations and finalize those (rules) governing enforcement,” Fisher said.

VIDA did immediately repeal the Small Vessel General Permit program for vessels under 79 feet. It also exempts all fishing vessels, regardless of size, from VGP requirements, including incidental discharge regulations.

Stakeholders aren’t satisfied with all of VIDA’s provisions. For example, the legislation allows governors in the Great Lakes states to propose a separate regional standard to the EPA, Fisher said, although eight governors would have to agree on the proposal. But industry representatives reported satisfaction with the act as a whole.

“We felt throughout that we had a just cause here,” Carpenter said. “The bill was really all about providing high standards of environmental protection in a way that enabled the efficient flow of maritime commerce.”

By Professional Mariner Staff