US requires ballast water strategies from vessel operators

USCG's Thomas says the guidance will provide clarity to shipowners seeking ballast water extensions. Credit: USCG
USCG's Thomas says the guidance will provide clarity to shipowners seeking ballast water extensions. Credit: USCG

Updated policy guidance from the US Coast Guard (USCG) has revealed that it may be more difficult than previously assumed by shipowners trading in the United States to postpone costly ballast water equipment purchases.

In a bulletin published on 6 March, the agency outlined specific requirements for shipowners seeking extensions to US ballast water regulations that came into force in 2012.

The United States had been routinely allowing shipowners to delay equipment purchases because no ballast water management system (BWMS) that could effectively kill the required number of invasive organisms travelling in a ship’s ballast water tank had been available until three months ago .

That leniency changed in December, when three US type-approved ballast water treatment systems became available for ships trading in the United States. The USCG pointed out then that having treatment systems available meant shipowners would have to provide evidence that none of the systems was operationally suitable to obtain a compliance extension for a particular vessel.

But the new directive goes further. Shipowners who acknowledge that there is a US type-approved system that works on a particular vessel – but claim there is not enough time to install it before the vessel’s compliance date – must now include a detailed installation plan for how the vessel can be brought into compliance before the end of an 18-month extension period.

Owners contending that no US type-approved system is suitable for a vessel must provide a strategy, including a “timeline”, for how the vessel will be brought into compliance before the end of a 30-month extension period, according to the Coast Guard.

Those requirements, which apply to all vessels with a compliance date before and including 31 December 2018, cancels the Coast Guard’s previous policy, which based compliance extensions on a ship’s drydocking schedule – which had effectively bought shipowners up to five years of time with which to comply.

Extension requests that do not provide the new justification for delaying installment will be denied, the USCG stated.

“Any extension request will be bolstered if the vessel owner/operator demonstrates an understanding of how to match the operating profile of their vessel to the operating profile of a [US] Coast Guard type-approved BWMS,” stated Paul Thomas, the agency’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, in announcing the new guidance.

“While the Coast Guard understands that no single system is appropriate for every vessel, it is incumbent upon vessel owners/operators to employ engineering and operational solutions in order to install approved systems. Where engineering and operational accommodations can be made, the Coast Guard may consider extending the compliance date based on an installation plan.”

Thomas explained that he issued the new guidance in response to “hundreds” of extension requests and “dozens of questions” received by the USCG, “which indicate a widespread misunderstanding of the previously issued guidance, and an associated need for additional clarity and certainty for all stakeholders”.

By requiring ballast water installation strategies before it will grant an extension to the US regulation, “the Coast Guard is trying to balance the interests of the shipowners with the ballast water manufacturers”, Blank Rome attorney Jeanne Grasso told IHS Markit. “While this is a big investment for the owners, the manufacturers have already invested a lot too. I think it’s an effort to hold the owners’ feet to the fire.”

For vessels with compliance dates within the two-year stretch between 1 January 2019 and 31 December 2020, the USCG said it would begin considering extension requests 18 months prior to the vessel’s compliance date. However, “these requests could be impacted by changes in the market or availability of type-approved systems. Owners and operators are encouraged to submit additional information in support of their extension request,” according to the bulletin.

Vessels with compliance dates of 1 January 2021 or later should not expect to receive an extension, the USCG said, therefore owners and operators of vessels in this category should plan to be in compliance on their current compliance dates.

The USCG also reiterated that vessels outfitted with an alternative management system (AMS) – equipment that meets standards set by the International Maritime Organization but which does not meet US compliance testing methods – do not qualify for an extension, because such vessels are already considered to be in compliance for a period of five years.

Vessel operators considering an AMS must now first evaluate whether a US-type approved BWMS is available. “If it is determined that such a system is not available, an AMS can be installed before the vessel’s compliance date and used for up to five years after the vessel’s compliance date,” the USCG stated.

The latest directive emphasised that owners should submit extension requests 12–16 months before the vessel’s compliance date, and that those submitted less than a year prior could be denied.