Long-Awaited Ballast Water Standards Proposed by Coast Guard

Published Jan 12, 2011 9:39 AM by The Maritime Executive

Our view: Everyone’s boat will float when all are discharging treated ballast water, no matter what the standard.

Last Thursday’s U.S. Coast Guard announcement of proposed for ballast water treatment (BWT), an effort that was as many as ten years in the making, drew mixed reviews from industry, environmentalists, manufacturers of BWT equipment and the people that ultimately test and certify these devices. Long awaited by a host of maritime stakeholders here and abroad, the first phase of the proposed rule also falls short of certain local standards already in place, but provides general agreement with an International Maritime Organization (IMO) standard that has been in place since 2004. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard proposal represents progress and provides clear guidance to ship owners who were previously reluctant to do much of anything in the absence of any standard on this side of the pond. That’s a good thing. Here’s why:

The problems inherent in the impact of invasive aquatic species transported via ballast water in ships are nothing new to the shipping industry. What to do about it has been, until now, another can of worms altogether. Long criticized for delays in announcing a proposed standard, the Coast Guard, in actuality, has probably been ready to do just that for the better part of two years. However, getting this past the labyrinth of U.S. Government environmental requirements has not been easy either. Finally, and as the Bush administration left town last January, the Obama people put a hold on anything pending that had even the most remote impact on the environment until each initiative could be thoroughly studied. Seven months later, we now have a proposed federal BWT standard.

The absence of a federal BWT standard has been a nightmare for more than a decade. Frustrated by inaction on the federal level, individual states have separately enacted their own standards in an effort to stop the introduction of new invasive species. The collective result of all of this has been a collection of ‘Balkanized’ state rules that – often in close proximity to one another and sometimes other countries – have had little or no effect on the effort to stem the tide of invasive species.

In some places, the rules have discouraged vessels from calling on ports in particular states because vessel owners were unwilling to install expensive abatement equipment that might not be approved when the final BWT rules were eventually established. In Michigan, where the local economy has been on life support for a decade, a local BWT statute did little to stop in the ingress of invasive species from adjacent waters and accomplished nothing beyond hindering local commerce at a time when the Great Lakes state could ill-afford it.

There is no current federal requirement to treat ballast water in order to prevent the spread of living organisms. Typically, ocean-going vessels use some sort of ballast water exchange regimen to flush out their tanks in open seas before entering a U.S. port, but the practice has been proven to be ineffective. The new proposal, open to public comment for only 90 days, provides for an initial phase that essentially meets the UN’s IMO standard, but then becomes 1,000 times stricter in the second phase. The initial protocol, which measures living organisms per cubic meter of ballast water, falls below current standards in the state of California and future standards elsewhere.

Last Friday’s Federal Register entry includes feasibility studies and provides for the possibility of revising the standards to a stricter benchmark in the future. The technology, to test with certainty to the stricter phase-two standards, does not yet exist. Furthermore, it is unclear as to when this will be possible, if ever. On Tuesday, at the Maritime Environmental Resource Center (MERC), Dr. Mario Tamburri told MarEx, “All in all, the Coast Guard’s proposal represents a reasonable and logical approach.” Tamburri, MERC’s director, has been involved in the study of invasive species and testing of BWT treatment devices for more than ten years.

There is more good news: The phase-two standard also includes a grandfather clause for those vessels that install technology that has been type approved as meeting the phase-one BWDS prior to January 1, 2016. And, although it is unclear as to whether the proposed “grandfather clause” would survive or even be further extended (through the input received in the comment period), it does provide immediate hope that those shipping companies who choose to install equipment to be in compliance will not be bitten on the back end by a stricter standard.

There is one thing that we do know for sure: the technology to meet the IMO standard does exist today. And that’s good news for the six equipment manufacturers who have already met the IMO standard and as many as five more who are literally knocking on the door. As the maritime industry recovers in parallel with the world’s financial markets, the installation of this soon-to-be-required – and let’s face it; necessary – equipment will add some juice to the rebound.

Mario Tamburri provides a word of caution for those who would move forward to install a particular piece of equipment. As the director of one facility that has demonstrated the capability to test and benchmark this new technology, he says, “There is likely no silver bullet. What works for one ship-type, size or trade route might not be appropriate for another.” Indeed. The list of six approved devices include technology that treats ballast water using filtration, hydrocyclone, peracetic acid, UV-treatment, deoxygeniation and chlorine. One device even incorporates almost all of these technologies. Approvals come from a myriad of sources, including Norway, Germany, the UK, Liberia and Marshall Islands flag and Korea.

The fly in the ointment will predictably come at the state level here in America. Just as many of these individual states acted out of frustration to the lack of federal standards in the first place, it is also possible that less strict compliance standards contained in “phase-one” of the Coast Guard proposal will cause them to dig their heels in even further. But, the proposed rules do not prevent individual states from imposing stricter standards. On the other hand, no one has yet to date demonstrated an ability to test with certainty to assure compliance with the “phase-two” levels. For his part, MERC’s Tamburri says, “I hope the states will recognize this on the federal level and embrace this fundamental approach.” He goes on to say, “Working with the International community, this starts solving the problem now. The stricter standard should be the ultimate goal, but the IMO standard is a great place to start.”

In the first quarter of 2003, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Admiral Ronald F. Silva told MarEx , “The problem of invasive species is the highest priority marine environmental issue for the U.S. Coast Guard.” More than six years later the Coast Guard has finally put some teeth into those claims by publishing – although not without controversy – a logical set of proposed rules to deal with the problem. The maritime community’s struggle with the quandary of deciding what – if any – ballast water treatment system it should install or retrofit onto its oceangoing fleets may be nearing its painful end. That said, we hope that all stakeholders on all sides of the issue; locally, federally, environmentally and on the International level, will embrace the proposed standard. Eventually, everyone’s boat will float when all are discharging treated ballast water, no matter what the standard. - MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685