Ballast regs tightened to stop spread of exotic species

Feb 28, 2007 12:00 AM
A 2003 survey of 81 vessels that entered the waters of the state of Washington found that 24 had discharged improperly exchanged ballast water.

Twenty of those vessels "knowingly violated the law in some way," said Scott Smith of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The ballast water problem is global in nature. Reducing the environmental threats posed by the introduction of nonindigenous species through ballast water is a continuing international challenge.

"This is an extremely serious environmental issue," said Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization. Once exotic organisms have been introduced, he warned, they "can be virtually impossible to eliminate" and "may cause havoc."

The regulations governing ballast water management (BWM) are shifting from voluntary to mandatory. Washington state's law allows discharges only if there has been an open-ocean ballast water exchange. These procedures have been mandatory since 2000. The law also requires coastal shipping to exchange ballast water at least 50 miles offshore.

The U.S. Coast Guard's program for voluntary BWM reporting by vessels entering U.S. waters has now become mandatory. Worldwide, the IMO adopted its Ballast Water Convention in February 2004. It gives governments "the right to take, individually or jointly with other Parties, more stringent measures" dealing with ballast water and transfers of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens. The IMO convention will enter into force 12 months after ratification by 30 states, representing 35 percent of world merchant shipping tonnage.

 

The environmental risks

"Any ship carrying ballast water is a potential invasion source," according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Those invaders may be plants, animals, bacteria or pathogens with the potential to "displace native species, degrade native habitats, spread disease, and disrupt human social and economic activities that depend on water resources."

Lori Williams, executive director of the National Invasive Species Council, pointed out that "studies have shown that ballast water is a major pathway for the introduction of nonnative species into U.S. coastal waters."

In July 2004, seven states bordering the Great Lakes filed petitions with the Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling for more stringent ballast water rules and enforcement. Invasive animals and plants like zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil, round goby and rusty crayfish originating from uncontrolled ballast water discharges were cited as harmful species by Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.

New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer said, "Ballast water ought to be considered a significant pollutant … The exotic species of fish, mussels and plants contained in these discharges multiply at fantastic rates and overwhelm our ecosystem."

Clearly the stakes are high. The Great Lakes are a source of drinking water for more than 33 million people in the United States and Canada. Jennifer Nalbone, habitat and biodiversity coordinator with Great Lakes United, noted that, "Since oceangoing ships started using the Great Lakes Seaway in 1959, 36 of the 50 new aquatic invasions to the Great Lakes originated from oceangoing vessel transportation."

 

Programs and technologies

U.S. Coast Guard regulations now require BWM on all vessels equipped with ballast tanks that operate in U.S. waters, enter a U.S. port, or anchor or moor in the United States.

Under those regulations:

• Vessels that operate outside the U.S. exclusive economic zone must conduct one of the following practices: retain ballast water onboard, perform a midocean exchange or use a U.S. Coast Guard approved alternative to midocean exchange.

• Vessels must maintain a BWM plan that is specific for that vessel and allows any master or appropriate official to understand and execute the BWM strategy for that vessel.

• Vessels that operate within U.S. waters must conduct BWM practices to minimize the movement of nonindigenous species. They must avoid the discharge or uptake of ballast water in certain areas, and they must undertake regular cleaning of ballast tanks, proper disposal of sediments, and rinsing anchors and anchor chains during retrieval.

Midocean water exchanges have raised concerns by naval architects and shipowners. The IMO cautioned there may be "technical considerations such as the risk of structural damage to vessels due to sloshing action in partially filled ballast tanks in unfavorable sea conditions or the need to monitor permissible seagoing strength limits of shear forces, torsional forces and bending moments where relevant."

Operational factors to be considered are ballast water exchanges at sea during freezing weather that could result in "the freezing of overboard discharge, air pipes, ballast system valves together with their means of control, and the accretion of ice on deck," according to the IMO.

The IMO will allow exemptions, "if the vessel's master reasonably determines that such ballast water exchange will threaten the safety of the vessel or the vessel's crew, or is not feasible due to vessel design limitations or equipment failure."

Ballast water treatment systems are an alternative to water exchanges and some ships have systems installed. Because the rules are still evolving, industry has been slow to invest in alternative methods that might not be allowed under the standards that are eventually adopted.

Assessing the feasibility of a ballast treatment system is a complex task. For example, a 48,000-dwt product carrier with 14 ballast tanks could carry up to 118,369 barrels of water, according to Capt. Raymond Marquardt with United States Shipping LLC. He explained that any decision to use the treatment alternative would need to consider available space on the vessel and the size of equipment employed, as well as the scope of work required to retrofit the vessel with the treatment equipment.

Reporting requirements were cited as a problem by shipping companies when the Coast Guard rules were being formulated. To address some of the problems, the electronic reporting process has been improved. Ship operators can download forms they can fill out offline to reduce lengthy at-sea Internet connection time, said Capt. Dave Scott, chief of the Coast Guard's office of operating and environmental standards. "Electronic submissions provide benefits to industry and to the Coast Guard," he said.

Achieving broad compliance with BWM rules will require regulators to set specific ballast water discharge standards, establish approval procedures for water treatment systems and conduct inspections to detect violations.

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