One thing I’ve learned lately is that ballast water tanks that ships use for stability can cause big headaches. For one thing, when filled with water they can act like an aquarium for all kinds of critters and carry them across oceans. Those species can set up shop in a whole new spot once they get dumped overboard at the next port of call. For another thing, swapping ballast water in mid-ocean — the technique required by the U.S. and many other governments as a way to get rid of unwanted hitchhikers — can be dangerous. One freighter literally flipped on its side when a mid-ocean ballast water exchange went wrong.
I wrote about all this in an article for Chesapeake Quarterly last June, where I noted that many were calling for a change in approach to better protect ecosystems from invasive species. Now the beginnings of change have come.
On August 28th, 2009, the Coast Guard published proposed rules that include standards for treating — not exchanging — ballast water. This opens the door for installing systems on board ships — things like filters, chemicals, UV rays, etc. — that kill organisms and eliminate the need for exchange.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) created standards for treatment in 2004, and technology companies have been busy developing systems to meet them, often borrowing ideas from the wastewater treatment field. But until now, the U.S. did not recognize treatment as a viable option. Ships were stuck spending time and manpower on exchange.
The Coast Guard’s new rules would change that.
Under the proposed regulations, all new ships built after January 1, 2012, must include treatment systems that meet standards regarding the number of living organisms allowed in discharged ballast water. The standards mirror the ones created by the IMO in 2004. Compliance on existing ships and those built before 2012 depends on their ballast capacity, with all ships using treatment systems by 2016. That’s Phase One.
Phase Two would require ships to comply with a standard that is about 1,000 times stricter, as of 2016.
Mario Tamburri, director of the Maritime Environmental Resource Center (MERC) in Baltimore, Maryland, calls the proposed rulemaking “a reasonable and logical way to go.” He notes that since the IMO’s 2004 convention on ballast water, only six systems have been certified as meeting the IMO — and now the U.S. — standard.
“It’s not real easy to do,” he says. He thinks the stricter Phase Two standard “should be the ultimate goal,” but that it will require innovation — “technologies or treatments that we haven’t even thought of yet.”
For this reason, he’s pleased that the Coast Guard has planned for a review process over the next several years to assess whether reaching such a high standard will be possible.
Tamburri and his team will be on the frontline testing treatment systems through their work at MERC. Before the new Coast Guard regulations, MERC primarily tested systems striving to achieve the IMO standard for use on foreign ships abroad. Now, systems could be installed on U.S. ships. He says that from now on any data collected at their test facility will also address Coast Guard needs.
The proposed regulations are available for public comment until November 27. After that, the Coast Guard and related agencies will work on addressing feedback and making necessary changes.
Tamburri doesn’t anticipate any major objections from either the environmental community or the shipping industry. Both groups are anxious for change. Given this, he’s hopeful the regulations will be finalized by early next year.
“There’s a lot of motivation to move now. To help solve the problem now.”
For all the coastal ecosystems throughout the world facing the effects of invasive species, now sounds like a good time.
To view the proposed rules visit: http://frwebgate4.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/PDFgate.cgi?WAISdocID=68878897988+0+2+0&WAISaction=retrieve