Problems with the United States Ballast Water Regime

The IMO Ballast Water Convention will enter into force in September 2017. However, the implementation of the new IMO regime will not immediately resolve the major difficulties that exist for shipowners trading to the United States. There is still great uncertainty with respect to the differing U.S. approval regime for treatment equipment, which started being enforced in 2014.

The U.S. regulations require all ships that discharge ballast in U.S. waters to use a treatment system approved by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). However, because no systems had been approved until December 2016, ships already needing to comply with the U.S. regulations have either been granted extensions for fitting the required treatment systems or else permitted to install a USCG accepted Alternate Management System (AMS) – in practice a system type-approved in accordance with the original IMO G8 Guidelines. 

In December 2016, the USCG finally announced its approval of three treatment systems, and additional approvals are expected to follow during 2017. After many years of uncertainty this is a very welcome development. However, there are issues relating to the system type-approval certificates, and the Coast Guard is now making it more difficult for shipping companies to obtain or renew extensions as they must now provide detailed documentary evidence, on a ship by ship basis, explaining why the limited number of systems that have so far been approved may not be appropriate for installation. Companies must also provide details of a plan and timeline to comply with the U.S. regulations.

Rather than granting extensions, it is expected that USCG will increasingly require shipowners to install an AMS. But these will only be accepted for operation for five years, after which time a fully USCG approved system must be installed. But the USCG does not guarantee that an AMS will be subsequently granted full approval. Shipowners that may have installed an AMS in good faith might therefore have to replace the system completely after only five years.

The conflicting IMO and U.S. requirements, when combined with the small number of systems fully approved by the USCG, is producing a very difficult situation for shipping companies that wish to trade in U.S. waters.

The situation in the U.S is further complicated by the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for vessel discharges, including ballast water, that are regulated by the Clean Water Act, while individual U.S. states including California and New York, have also sought to apply their own standards. 

In 2016, efforts were made in Congress –with the support of ICS national associations including the Chamber of Shipping of America – to make USCG solely responsible for implementing a single U.S. standard. Despite being passed by the House of Representatives, the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) stalled while in Conference Committee with the Senate during the final days of the Obama
Administration. However, a fresh bipartisan effort to introduce a similar bill to Congress was made in February 2017, and is fully supported by ICS.

In September 2016, during the biennial United States dialogue meeting with the Consultative Shipping Group (CSG) of maritime administrations, a delegation of ICS member national associations impressed upon USCG the great importance of coming to a pragmatic solution on ballast water issues, in order to avoid chaos. In co-operation with IMO Member States, ICS will continue these important efforts throughout 2017.

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