(No) Ballast off a Sinking Ship
The invasive species and ballast water treatment situation is dangerously close to spiraling out of control.
According to the web site www.mpnballastwaterfacts.com – a site set up in part by a consortium of UV-based ballast water management system manufacturers – the U.S. Coast Guard’s recent announcement about the so-called “MPN method” has far reaching implications to the marine industry, particularly for shipowners and ballast water management system suppliers. And, while those two groups are, to be sure, facing tough decisions, I would suggest that the real loser here is the environment. Looking at all sides of this particular story, it isn’t hard to see why.
I’ve been covering ballast water and invasive species for a long time; as far back as 2000, actually. In 2002, the Commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District in Cleveland told me that “there was no more important issue on the plate of the U.S. Coast Guard.” Industry got to work and over time, as many as 60 different manufacturers had developed a wide variety of technologies to combat the problem of invasive species, of which (at last count), about 50 had been approved by one flag state, classification society, or similar organization. None here in the United States, though. Almost 14 years later, I would argue that little progress has been made on the U.S. regulatory side of the ball.
Certainly, and particularly in the Great Lakes, back then, it was a hot topic and there was bitter debate over the issue. It was here that the Balkanization of the Ballast Water Treatment (BWT) regulatory process began. Myriad states, frustrated by the lack of federal action on the issue, made up their own laws. Vessels passing through the Great Lakes might pass in and out Canadian waters as many as 100 times, not to mention various U.S. states dozens of other times as they went about their business. It was nearly impossible to keep track of which law was in play at any one time.
Success! Or, maybe not …
Over time, the issue of invasive species has created its own little cottage industry, with trade shows, industry forums and all manners of meetings that promise knowledge, relief and a way forward. Over time, I attend as many of these as I can. One such conference, held on the West Coast some 16 months ago, finally crystallized the issue so perfectly that, as we await the long awaited IMO Convention to be ratified (eminent, so everyone tells me), I just have to share.
Sadly, I can’t remember the gentleman’s name who was giving the presentation, but it went something like this, and he said (paraphrasing), when we look at the ballast water treatment issue, the regulatory regime would have us believe that the systems are failing and that we haven’t achieved success in battling invasive species. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. We only need to look at how we measure success in other environmental efforts. Take engine emissions, for example. If we had by now eliminated 99 percent of all types of emissions from marine engines, then that would have been considered a wild success. Oil pollution? If we reduced oil spills by 99 percent, we might even get a pat on the back from the environmentalists. But, looking at BWT, we’ve achieved that metric, and more. And still, we have no approved systems in the United States. He went on to add that if we’d just installed these systems on every ship ten years prior, we’d have all but solved the problem already. Or, at least, we’d have gone a long way towards the ultimate solution.
When he (a state of California scientist, I think) finished talking, the room was quiet for a minute, and I raised my hand, and asked, “Wait a minute – you’re from California, right?” and, only when people had stopped laughing – obviously I was making reference to California’s effort to (then) enforce a standard that mandated compliance to a rule that was 1000x the IMO standard – I continued, “Look, seriously, you reside in a state that is advocating compliance to a standard for which the technology does not exist to measure it, and yet you tell us we’ve largely succeeded, by any other benchmark?” And, when you get right down to it – that’s exactly where we sit today.
My analysis of the situation isn’t completely right. I’m told by folks in a position to know better, that comparing oil pollution and air emissions to ballast water isn’t exactly an apple-to-apples discussion. I get it. But, if it is fair for the state of California to ask for a level of BWT compliance that can’t yet be measured, then I think it is equally appropriate to allow the installation of current market equipment (without the fear of later disqualification of that equipment) to at least begin to attack the problems at hand.
The consortium’s (well constructed) web site says that “On December 14, 2015, the USCG announced a preliminary decision not to approve four ballast water management systems that have been developed, extensively tested and known to be effective in eliminating the ability of aquatic invasive organisms from growing, colonizing and infesting U.S. waters. The basis given by the USCG for this preliminary decision is the USCG’s interpretation of its own regulations to require ballast water management systems to be evaluated based on their ability to ‘kill’ certain organisms, and not to assess the ‘viability’ of organisms in ballast water to colonize after treatment. This interpretation is inconsistent with the USCG regulations and the statute under which the ballast water regulations are authorized.”
The consortium goes on to say, “The MPN method is a well-established, sound scientific measurement method that has been utilized for decades to demonstrate effective organism neutralization. It measures the reproductive capability of organisms in water, and is relied upon by governing organizations throughout the world’s highest risk water treatment applications, including drinking water, food & beverage, and pharmaceutical. UV treatment – utilizing reproductive measures like the MPN method – is trusted to protect the human health of over one billion people in the world, from New York City to Paris to Beijing.” And then, it asks, “If UV treatment and the MPN method are used to protect human lives in the United States and throughout the world, why isn’t it good enough for ballast water?”
I still go to trade shows of course – not just because I like the finger food at sponsored receptions – but also because it is important to stay abreast of what is going on in the real world. It is tempting to close your eyes to the noise surrounding BWT, if only because it has gone on for so long. That said; the invasive species issue is quickly coming to a head. In fact, at an industry event in New Orleans just this month, Glosten’s Kevin Reynolds told a gathered audience, “We’re in for a messy two years.” I would have to agree with him.
Reynolds’ remarks went to the impending ratification of the IMO Convention at a time when ANY type approvals from the U.S. Guard look anything but certain. When that happens, shipowners and manufacturers alike will find themselves in a tough bind. International vessel operators will be forced to comply and then also be faced with the prospect of ‘non-compliance’ in U.S. waters, where that island nation takes in 95% of what it consumes on blue water, registered traffic. What’s a mother to do?
Compounding the situation, The U.S. Coast Guard’s current position on equipment approvals potentially leave as many as 30 of the existing 50 ‘type-approved’ systems out in the cold as the IMO ratification looms large in the proverbial porthole. And, some of our readers might say, “Well, that’s just too bad.” It certainly is. Especially when you consider that as many as 60,000 hulls may need BWT installation in the near term. The manufacturing capacity for the systems that remain – assuming they can also be approved – arguably does not exist.
By most accounts, the IMO Convention will be ratified during this calendar year. At last count, as many as 30 countries with 35 percent of the world’s Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT) are required for passage and 49 countries comprising 34.8 percent GRT have already ratified the Convention. MarPro blogger Steve Candito of Foresea Consulting adds – in this very forum – a BWTS will probably be approved by the USCG in Q2 or Q3 2016. Even if that happens, I think it unlikely that one manufacturer will be able to satisfy all of the marine industry’s BWT equipment demand.
As agonizingly slow as the BWT march to compliance has been over the course of the past 14 years, I think that pain will be nothing in comparison to the confusion that may be awaiting us just over the horizon. And I’m not just dumping ‘ballast off a sinking ship.’ That’s because, in U.S. waters in any event, there is to date no approved equipment with which to legally do just that. Most stakeholders already know that this is as big a problem as we’ve seen on the regulatory front in the recent past. At the same time, I wonder when the U.S. Coast Guard will come to the same conclusion. – MarPro.
Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.