US states maintain upper hand on ballast water

Some states have considerably higher ballast water discharge standards than federal agencies. Credit: Dietmar Hasenpusch.
Some states have considerably higher ballast water discharge standards than federal agencies. Credit: Dietmar Hasenpusch.

A last-ditch effort in the US to pass a bill that would have kept individual states from adopting tighter ballast water discharge standards has been unsuccessful.

The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), legislation that shipowners have been attempting to enact for years, would have eliminated the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s authority from regulating ballast water discharges in US waters, handing over sole authority to the US Coast Guard (USCG).

Under EPA’s oversight, individual states are currently allowed to preempt federal regulations with laws that can be more restrictive. Ballast water regulations on the books in New York and California, for example, are considered by some to be 100 times more strict than federal standards.

Elise Stefanik, a US Representative from New York, had worked to eliminate the bill from the National Defense Authorization Act, which was finalized on 2 December.

Supporters of VIDA then attempted to have it included in a short-term budget package. But that package, which funds federal operations through April 2017, was approved by the US Congress on 9 December without the VIDA legislation included.

“This has been important for us for the last 15 years, and we still have the state preemption issue, where individual states can do their own thing” when it comes to regulating ballast water discharges, Chamber of Shipping of America president Kathy Metcalf told IHS IHS Markit.

Metcalf, whose organisation represents US-based companies that own, operate or charter commercial vessels in both domestic and international trades, said not giving the USCG sole authority over ballast water regulations could potentially undermine the agency’s ballast water equipment type-approval regime.

Earlier this month Optimarin, a Norwegian equipment manufacturer, became the first vendor to receive USCG type-approval. The agency is expected to certify more systems soon, possibly by the end of the year.

However, “no matter how many US-type approved ballast water systems there are, compliance will always be an issue because states can put in more stringent regulations,” Metcalf warned.

VIDA is expected to be reintroduced by the next Congress, which is scheduled to convene on 3 January. A Capitol Hill source familiar with VIDA told IHS IHS Markit that while the legislation didn’t pass in 2016, “we’re going to keep going.”