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2012 Brings Federal Ballast Water Regulations

Photo by Chris J. Benson

If you are confused about the potential for treating ballast water so that aquatic invasive species are not spread in the waters of the United States, you are certainly not alone. The economic and scientific complexities are many and the existing data are few. The technology is new and largely untested. Additionally, this is a case where one size doesn't fit all; different ships will need different configurations when it comes to installing ballast water treatment systems.

Amidst the chaos, one area of the ballast water treatment issue recently became clearer. On November 30, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a Vessel General Permit (VGP) rulemaking proposal that, for the first time, sets numeric standards to control the release of invasive species in ballast water discharges in U.S. waters. The EPA's existing VGP, which governs 26 discharges from commercial vessels, expires in December 2013.

This much anticipated draft VGP is the regulatory underpinning for U.S. ballast water management rules, and the EPA's decisions will influence the U.S. Coast Guard rulemaking on the subject. Both the U.S. Coast Guard and the EPA are mandated to address ballast water standards and the way they are regulated in the U.S.

After extensive study and two special reports, one from the EPA's Science Advisory Board, and the other from the National Academy of Science, the EPA submitted a draft rule that embraces the ballast water management standards of the United Nations' International Maritime Organization (IMO), which provides international standards regarding environmental protection and safety for the global shipping industry. The EPA intends to issue the final permit in November 2012, a year before the existing VGP expires, to allow vessel owners and operators time to prepare for new permit requirements.

The new VGP will apply to the vast majority of commercial vessels operating in U.S. waters including: dry bulk, liquid bulk, container and general cargo ships and barges; cruise ships; passenger ferries; commercial fishing vessels and research vessels. The permit conditions are expected to govern roughly 60,000 U.S. domestic vessels and more than 12,000 foreign vessels trading in U.S. waters. To create the highest level of protection for the environment, new VGP rulemaking requires that ocean-going vessels trading in the Great Lakes continue conducting ballast water exchange even after approved ballast water treatment equipment is installed.

Great Lakes vessels trading exclusively above the Welland Canal (lakers) are exempt from the VGP ballast water regulations due to the lack of treatment systems for large vessels operating in freshwater systems. The EPA understands that significant obstacles currently prevent lakers from installing ballast water treatment equipment. However, when suitable ballast water treatment technology exists, the agency intends to require its use.

The permit does not exempt Great Lakes vessels trading below the Welland Canal. This is a point of contention because although viable freshwater ballast treatment options don't exist at this time, Canadian lakers working Lake Ontario waters will nevertheless be required to carry ballast water treatment systems
by 2016.

The drafted VGP begins to harmonize U.S. regulations with the IMO ballast water quality standards and equipment installation schedules. The EPA recognizes that installation of ballast water treatment equipment on existing vessels must be phased in due to limitations in shipyard capacity and equipment production capacity. World wide, only 200 ships have purchased ballast water treatment systems. About 70,000 ships will have to have ballast water treatment systems installed by 2016 under the current proposals. Vessels constructed after January 1, 2012, will be immediately subject to the ballast water treatment requirement when the permit takes effect in late 2013.

Under the Clean Water Act, permits are issued for a five-year period after which time EPA generally issues revised permits based on updated information and requirements. More information may be found at the EPA web site. (http://cfpub.epa.gov/npdes/vessels/vgpermit.cfm).

Dale Bergeron is Minnesota Sea Grant's Maritime Extension Educator. He has been instrumental in helping move science into ballast water policy through the Great Lakes Ballast Water Collaborative.

By Dale Bergeron
February 2012

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