The gap dividing the shipping industry and environmental groups on the question of invasive species in ballast water is measured in orders of magnitude. The International Maritime Organization is circulating a new standard for ballast water that it expects will take effect in 2012, but environmental groups say the standard should be a thousand times more stringent, and two key maritime states agree.
The battle over ballast won’t be waged in the open, but both sides will campaign to influence the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard as those agencies develop new ballast water rules. It’s not an abstract struggle. The outcome likely will affect freight rates as carriers try to recoup the cost of installing and operating water treatment systems.
If California and New York — the two largest maritime states in the nation — refuse to reconsider standards that are 1,000 times and 100 times higher, a much bigger problem could result: the altering of international supply chains as carriers seek to avoid fines for noncompliance.
A year from the IMO’s target implementation date, the technology available isn’t ready to meet much more than the IMO standard, which calls for vessels to have systems effective enough to discharge ballast water with no more than 10 living organisms per 264 gallons of water, said Cmdr. Gary Croot, head of the Coast Guard’s environmental standards division.
“Although wastewater and drinking water technologies have been around for a long time, the ballast water treatment industry is a relatively new industry,” he said. “Taking a wastewater system that might sit on 10 or 12 acres, and have miles of piping, and trying to put that onto a ship is not an easy task, particularly when you’re operating it under the confines of an engine room, under the rather austere conditions of shipboard life.”
But Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, believes it’s a matter of will to adapt the existing water systems for use by vessels. “It’s a question of going out and doing the work,” he said. “It’s not rocket science we’re talking about; it’s basic swimming pool science, water treatment science.”
Cmar said the NRDC has seen no good-faith effort by the shipping industry to comply with the even the IMO standard. According to the World Shipping Council, owners are waiting to see what types of water-treatment technology the IMO will approve. The options for killing organisms range from ultraviolet light treatment to chemical additives.
The IMO standard, known as D-2, has been circulating among member countries since 2004. The current standard calls for mid-ocean ballast exchange, but that can still leave alien species aboard. A majority of the 169 IMO members must approve the new standard for it to take effect, and observers believe that will happen in the first half of this year.
The U.S. has not adopted the standard, but will likely comply when it takes effect. The Coast Guard’s ballast water rules essentially adopt the IMO standard, Croot said.
Enforcing the rule is a problem because the concentration of organisms is so small, Croot said. “The D-2 standard is about 1 part per trillion, which is a tremendously small concentration,” he said. “One part per trillion is extremely hard to measure. We still don’t know how we’re going to do compliance testing in the field when you’re talking about concentrations that are so minute.”
Complicating matters is that the Coast Guard and EPA are operating under different laws. The Coast Guard says two nuisance-species prevention laws give it the authority to issue ballast water rules, but the EPA has the Clean Water Act behind it. In 2008, a federal court ruled that law covered all water discharges from vessels, including ballast water, under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System.
The EPA’s solution — done in haste to meet the court’s deadline — was to issue vessel operators the Vessel General Permit, which will expire in December 2013. The agency is drafting what the industry calls VGP 2.0, which is expected to be an improvement.
The laws are incompatible in some ways, Croot acknowledged, but the Coast Guard and EPA are doing their best to harmonize enforcement action. The Clean Water Act gives states the option of imposing more stringent standards. California, according to the WSC, opted for 1,000 times the standard for new ships beginning in 2012. New York wants to impose 100 times the standard on all vessels effective Jan. 1, 2012.
Wisconsin also has the 100 times standard, but in December, the state Department of Natural Resources proposed adopting the IMO standard instead. The agency said the higher standard wasn’t feasible because the treatment technologies aren’t available.
The shipping industry hopes to convince California and New York to delay the effective dates for their standards. Carriers also may seek legislative relief from the tangle of laws affecting ballast water. Doug Schneider, vice president of the World Shipping Council, said there is some sentiment in the House for making changes, but the Senate has shown no interest.
Contact R.G. Edmonson at firstname.lastname@example.org.