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What shipowners should know about new pollution control standards

U.S. consolidates vessel discharge regimes to provide more clarity and certainty

U.S. Coast Guard official inspects ballast water sample. (Photo: USCG)

U.S. regulators are rolling out on Monday the first of a two-part regime imposing new pollution control standards on ships. The regime will have long-term implications for how shipowners manage vessel discharges.

The 329-page Vessel Incidental Discharge National Standards of Performance, issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, sets a new framework for regulating discharges “incidental to the normal operation of vessels.” The change is aimed at bringing consistency and certainty to the oversight of such discharges from approximately 82,000 U.S.- and foreign-flagged commercial vessels operating in U.S. waters, including tankers, bulk carriers, container ships and cruise ships.

“In the realm of maritime regulatory initiatives, this is a big one,” Jeanne Grasso, partner with the law firm Blank Rome, told FreightWaves. “These changes are significant, and it’s very important that the industry pay attention because it’s going to be the governing standard for incidental vessel discharges probably for decades.”

Replacing an old regime

The new regime, known as the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), replaced the previous Vessel General Permit (VGP) regime and was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018. VIDA consolidated and restructured the regulatory framework that had existed under several federal and state authorities. It required EPA to establish national performance standards for marine pollution control devices on board ships as the first phase of the program. The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for the second phase of the program — with a deadline of December 2022 — which is to implement and enforce those standards with a new set of regulations.

Under VIDA, the performance standards will establish requirements for discharges — all considered incidental to the normal operation of a vessel — from the following 20 types of vessel equipment and systems:

  • Ballast tanks
  • Bilges
  • Boilers
  • Cathodic protection
  • Chain lockers
  • Decks
  • Desalination and purification systems
  • Elevator pits
  • Exhaust gas emission control systems (scrubbers)
  • Fire protection equipment
  • Gas turbines
  • Graywater systems
  • Hulls and associated niche areas
  • Inert gas systems
  • Motor gasoline and compensating systems
  • Non-oily machinery
  • Pools and spas
  • Refrigeration and air conditioning
  • Seawater piping
  • Sonar domes

According to EPA, the discharge-specific requirements for each piece of equipment, which are included in the document, “are based on best available technology economically achievable, best conventional pollutant control technology, and best practicable technology currently available, including the use of [best management practices], to prevent or reduce the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States or the waters of the contiguous zone.”

Focus on ballast water, scrubbers

Grasso pointed out that the most anticipated discharge standards were those relating to exhaust gas cleaning systems (EGCS or “scrubbers”), and ballast water.

Regarding scrubbers, “EPA incorporated discharge standards applicable to EGCS … based substantially on applicable International Maritime Organization [IMO] guidelines, which better harmonized the VGP and IMO requirements,” Grasso noted in an advisory issued earlier this month. “Notably, the pH limit for EGCS wash water discharges has been changed to 6.5 [from no less than 6.0] and no longer needs to be measured at the hull.”

For vessel owners operating ships that discharge ballast water in the U.S., the new VIDA standard brings together regimes under the EPA’s VGP and regulations enforced by the Coast Guard, as well as separate state and regional regimes.

“With respect to ballast water, there are some specific provisions in here that take West Coast and Great Lakes states into account,” Grasso said. “But once the VIDA rule is complete, it will bring everything under one umbrella, which will include preempting state law. So you won’t have a smattering of federal agencies and five to 10 states all regulating independently.”

Governors will have a say

Grasso noted also that VIDA gives governors the ability to fight discharges of certain waste streams into their state. “It’s a new provision — allowing states to petition for no-discharge zones for multiple discharges. They would have to justify that their waters are unique and that there will be ample pump-out facilities.”

While the EPA points out that the cost implications of VIDA for shipowners will likely be minimal, Grasso emphasized that vessel owners understand that the document is a proposal with a 30-day comment period.

“There will be comments coming in from all sides — vessel owners, operators and environmental groups as well, and EPA will need to finalize the regulation based on comments from various stakeholders. So having shipowners look at how this will impact their operations in future is critical.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.