Test lab shutdown puts ballast water testing regime under scrutiny

Mario Tamburri (left) and Paul Thomas discuss ballast water equipment testing at MERC in 2016. Credit: USCG
Mario Tamburri (left) and Paul Thomas discuss ballast water equipment testing at MERC in 2016. Credit: USCG

A flawed regulatory regime that lacks effective testing protocols has led to the end of ballast water equipment testing at a laboratory that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the US Coast Guard (USCG) have been relying on for type-approving ballast water management systems (BWMS), according to the testing facility.

The Baltimore, Maryland-based Maritime Environment Resource Center (MERC), which has evaluated the performance of equipment that went on to become certified by several countries under the IMO’s Ballast Water Management Convention, is also a “sub-lab” of the first USCG-designated independent lab for testing and certifying BWMS for US-type approval.

However, shortcomings in the IMO G8 Guidelines and the USCG Independent Laboratory certification testing process “have resulted in significant uncertainties about the quality and value of test results”, according to MERC, in a statement on 6 December.

That uncertainty puts at risk the “scientific integrity and reputation” of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), which established MERC in 2008, according to UMCES.

Mario Tamburri, director of MERC and a research professor at UMCES, said that the coastguard had been aware of the lab’s concerns for several years.

“While we tried our best to influence change with more rigorous science, the USCG was unable to make the changes we recommended,” Tamburri told IHS Markit. “It was my understanding that they have been constrained themselves by the regulations.”

That point was underscored by the USCG, when asked to comment on MERC’s cancellation of BWMS testing.

“The ballast water management system testing protocol, referenced in the ballast water management regulations, was developed by the EPA’s Environmental Technology Verification [ETV] Technical Panel, an independent group of experts with scientific and technical expertise in various ballast water issues,” said Meridena Kauffman, an official with USCG’s Office of Operating and Environmental Standards, in a statement to IHS Markit.

“This group determined which testing protocol was most appropriate, and the panel independently validated it before it was incorporated into the ballast water management regulation. The ETV Technical Panel is currently in the process of updating the protocol for ship board testing and land-based testing in consideration of lessons learned.”

The USCG has been well aware of MERC’s concerns. Paul Thomas, the agency’s former Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy, said he understood the challenges faced by the equipment manufacturers and the testing labs.

“Although the regulations and test protocol are not perfect, they are the best available type approval test requirements, and we’ll continue to work with our stakeholders to improve the next generation of testing regulations and protocols,” Thomas said after a visit to MERC’s testing facility in 2016.

NSF International, the independent lab based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, under which MERC operated, is one of five such labs – along with Korean Register (KR), Lloyd’s Register, Control Union Certifications BV, and DNV GL – that conduct BWMS testing. (Officials at NSF International were not available to confirm that MERC’s dropping out of BWMS testing necessitated NSF dropping out of ballast water equipment testing as well, as MERC was the only NSF sub-lab providing biological evaluations.)

Of the six BWMS that have so far gained final US certification, five were tested by DNV GL, the other by Lloyd’s Register. Norwegian-based ballast water equipment manufacturer OceanSaver, supplier of one of the six US type-approved systems, went bankrupt in September, fuelling speculation that consolidation among manufacturers seems inevitable.