US clamps down on ballast water enforcement

The USCG’s Nadeau cautioned shipowners that broken ballast water equipment can lead to big fines. Credit: USCG
The USCG’s Nadeau cautioned shipowners that broken ballast water equipment can lead to big fines. Credit: USCG

Ships trading in the United States should be ensuring crews document communications with port state control and with their ballast water equipment manufacturer to avoid penalties for inoperable equipment, according to the US Coast Guard (USCG).

In a blog post published on 1 December, John Nadeau, the USCG’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, warned shipowners that by shifting from implementation to enforcement mode, the agency is taking a harder look at whether ship crews are taking appropriate measures if their ship’s ballast water filtering equipment is not working.

“Contingency planning should be included in the vessel-specific ballast water management plan [BWMP],” Nadeau wrote. “The BWMP should provide succinct directions and alternate measures to be taken if a ballast water management system [BWMS] is inoperable or the vessel’s intended compliance method is unexpectedly unavailable.”

The US ballast water regulation requires vessel owners or operators to inform the nearest captain of the port (COTP) as soon as possible to identify options if a BWMS stops operating properly during a voyage. Although not required by the regulations, “I recommend that the vessel owner or operator also contact the destination COTP as soon as practicable to identify options for compliance with the ballast water regulations,” Nadeau advised.

The COTP will determine if attempts to repair the BWMS are “supported by communications with the manufacturer” and whether other compliant ballast water management methods are available, he said. A COTP may ask the representative what the vessel’s BWMP directs the crew to do, as well as how the representative plans to comply with the regulation.

“Additional information the COTP may request includes the length of time the system has been inoperable, the suspected cause of failure, repairs already completed, a schedule for proposed corrective action, and other operational data,” Nadeau said. The COTP will then use that information to confirm that the BWMS meets an exception under the regulation for being “unexpectedly unavailable”.

Between 2012 and 2017, the USCG issued nearly 700 vessel deficiencies for ballast-related incidents of noncompliance, according to the agency. Depending on each circumstance, the penalty can range from a warning letter to a fine of up to USD38,175.

The US regulation is distinct from requirements of International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Ballast Water Management Convention, which came into force on 8 September.

However, because the IMO has extended the compliance schedule for some vessels through to September 2024, crews may be tempted not to use the BWMS on a regular basis, which can lead to operational problems. Some shipowners experiencing problems have complained that equipment manufacturers have provided minimal support after having spent millions of dollars for installations on their fleet.

But an inoperable BWMS will be treated like other pollution prevention equipment that fails or cannot perform its intended function as designed, Nadeau cautioned.

“Inoperability is a compliance issue. It is not a valid reason to discharge unmanaged ballast to US waters, nor is it grounds for an extension to a vessel’s compliance date.”