September 14, 2006
GAO report notes state action on ballast water
The Coast Guard has yet to develop a discharge standard for ballast water. As a result, shipowners face the prospect of having to deal with a patchwork of U.S. state regulations on ballast water management and discharge.
A recent GAO report notes that ballast water as a potential source of invasive species has been a legislative concern since 1990, It also notes, that despite regulatory action since then, U.S. waters are still vulnerable to species invasions and that, as it reported in 2002, key agencies and stakeholders recognize that ballast water exchange is not a viable long-term approach to minimizing the risks posed by ballast water discharges.
A key element of an improved management program for preventing species invasions is the development of a discharge standard for ballast water.
"When we reported in 2002," says the report, which was originally given as testimony before the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs of the House Committee on Government Reform, "the Coast Guard was working on a discharge standard that would set a limit on the amount of potentially harmful organisms that could be discharged by ships into U.S. waters. In addition, developers were researching technologies that could be used to more effectively 'clean' ballast water discharges than ballast water exchange. However, at the time, it was not clear what type of technological approach would prove successful at treating ballast water. While progress has been made on both of these issues since our report, the bottom line remains the same. Specifically, the Coast Guard has yet to issue a discharge standard and there are no technologies that have been approved for treating ballast water. Without such a standard or technology, ballast water exchange is still the only available treatment method for reducing the amount of potentially invasive species in ships' ballast water. Thus, U.S. waters remain vulnerable to invasive species carried in ballast water.
In the absence of stronger federal action to protect U.S. waters against species invasions, several coastal and Great Lakes states have enacted legislation that is more stringent than current federal regulations.
In June 2005, Michigan signed into law a requirement that all oceangoing vessels obtain a state permit before discharging ballast water into state waters. The state will issue the permit only if the applicant can demonstrate that the vessel will not discharge aquatic nuisance species or, if it will, that the operator of the vessel will use environmentally sound technology and methods as determined by the state department that can be used to prevent the discharge of aquatic invasive species. This requirement takes effect January 1, 2007.
California law required the State Lands Commission to adopt new regulations governing ballast water management practices for ships of 300 gross tons or more arriving at a California port or place from outside of the Pacific Coast Region by January 1, 2005. The California State Lands Commission has proposed, but not yet finalized, these regulations. Upon implementation of the regulations, California law will require the ships to employ at least one of the following ballast water management practices: (1) exchange its ballast water more than 200 miles from land and at least 2,000 meters deep before entering the state's coastal waters; (2) retain its ballast water; (3) discharge water at the same location where the ballast water originated; (4) use an alternative, environmentally sound method; (5) discharge the ballast water to a reception facility approved by the commission; or (6) under extraordinary circumstances, exchange ballast water within an area agreed upon by the commission and the Coast Guard. The proposed California regulation would require ships carrying ballast water from within the Pacific Coast Region to conduct any ballast water exchange in waters that are more than 50 miles from land and at least 200 meters deep.
Oregon law prohibits certain ships from discharging ballast water in Oregon waters unless the ship has conducted a ballast water exchange more than 200 miles from any shore, or at least 50 miles from land and at a depth of at least 200 meters if its ballast water was taken onboard at a North American coastal port. Oregon exempts ships that: (1) discharge ballast water only at the location where the ballast water originated; (2) retain their ballast water; (3) traverse only internal state waters; (4) traverse only the territorial sea of the U.S. and do not enter or depart an Oregon port or navigate state waters; (5) discharge ballast water that has been treated to remove organisms in a manner that is approved by the Coast Guard; or (6) discharge ballast water that originated solely from waters located between 40 degrees latitude north and 50 degrees latitude north on the west coast. (The southern border of Oregon is at latitude 42 degrees north, while the northern border is at 46 degrees north.)
Washington's ballast water law applies to self-propelled ships in commerce of 300 gross tons or more and prohibits discharging ballast water into state waters unless a ship has conducted an exchange of ballast water 50 miles or more offshore, or further offshore if required by the Coast Guard. Some ships are exempt from this requirement, including ships that retain their ballast water or that discharge ballast water or sediments only at the location where ballast water was taken on. The coordinator of Washington's aquatic nuisance species program told us that during the legislative process, shipping industry representatives and oceanographic experts concurred that the 50-mile boundary for exchange was both feasible for the ships and protective against invasive species. After July 1, 2007, discharge of ballast water in state waters will be authorized only if there has been an exchange at least 50 miles offshore or if the vessel has treated its ballast water to meet standards set by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.