Ballast Water Experts Weigh Implications of Type-approval Changes
March 1, 2019
Looking out over the Harbor in Seattle, one would never notice which Ballast Water treatment system a ship uses. But Mark Riggio, president of the Ballastwater Equipment Manufacturers' Association, an independent trade organization, said many of those vessels may soon be fitted with ultraviolet (UV) systems.
While about half of all small- to medium-sized vessels throughout the world already use UV Ballast Water management systems, a new development could change the regulatory framework governing Ballast Water treatment in the United States.
The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), signed into law on Dec. 4 by President Trump, brought several major changes for the maritime industry, including a uniform national standard governing Ballast Water discharges.
But the bill also instructed the Coast Guard to review its type-approval process for Ballast Water management systems. Most significantly, the Coast Guard must consider the viability of the organisms being discharged, not simply whether they are alive or dead. They must also consider using the most probable number (MPN) method of analysis, which would bring its process into closer alignment with that of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The move could eliminate regulatory confusion for international shipping companies and increase the viability of UV treatment systems in particular.
The current Coast Guard type-approval framework, which came into force in 2012, employs a live-dead standard for microorganisms in Ballast Water. Conversely, the IMO Ballast Water Management Convention allows Flag Administrations a viable-unviable standard that examines the ability of organisms to reproduce after treatment.
UV technologies, originally designed to sterilize organisms, have faced greater barriers to type-approval in the United States owing to this discrepancy, and their customers have borne higher capital and operating costs, according to Ballast Water experts.
Potential Regulatory Changes
The VIDA legislation states that by mid-year, the Coast Guard must release a draft policy letter that details its position with respect to MPN and outlines a path forward for viability assessment.
No changes are certain yet, but Riggio said VIDA includes compelling language that should encourage the Coast Guard to harmonize its type-approval process to the IMO standards. After the release of the policy letter for public comment, he added that the Coast Guard will finalize its approach over the course of several months.
Marcie Merksamer, an environmental consultant and vice president at EnviroManagement Inc, expressed caution about using the term "harmonization" loosely.
"There's more than just acceptance of MPN analysis that would be required to get to complete harmonization of the IMO and the Coast Guard type-approval requirements," she said, adding that those small nuances can make a big difference in the type-approval testing process.
For example, one difference is the IMO approval process requirement to evaluate organism regrowth, which is not specifically required in the existing Coast Guard regulations, Merksamer said.
The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has called the US approval regime "more stringent" than IMO standards. The US has additional operational requirements ships must meet in order to comply with the Ballast Water rule. Operators must submit a Ballast Water management report to authorities 24 hours before arriving at a US port.
The Coast Guard likely won't choose to fully adopt the IMO Ballast Water Management Convention, to allow them greater flexibility in enforcement and protecting the waters of the United States. The agency has shown a preference for handling its own enforcement actions and retaining the right to adjust standards in the United States as technology improves, Riggio explained.
Still, closer alignment with international standards could be a good signal to international shippers doing business in the United States.
"In general, a vessel owner obviously wants to have as much consistency between regulatory schemes where their vessels sail, it just makes things less complicated and less convoluted," Merksamer said.
Some vessel operators that don't have treatment systems type-approved by the Coast Guard have found ways to compensate for their lack of authorization to discharge in US waters, according to John Berge, vice president at the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA). But vessels that primarily load cargo, he said, have likely been affected by the current Ballast Water framework.
Adoption of MPN analysis may prompt some of these operators to adjust their calculations when it comes to choosing a treatment system.
A Boost for UV Technology
Changes in capital and operating costs resulting from harmonization could have a major impact on the viability of UV systems. Currently, approximately 50-55 percent of small to medium-sized ships operating in the US have UV systems installed. Another 35-40 percent use electrochlorination, according to Riggio. However, any operator with a UV system has had to deal with the cost of using higher power levels to kill microorganisms.
Because of the increased power demands, UV treatment typically carries higher operational costs when compared to other systems. "Kill standards" demand that operators use three-to-four times more UV radiation than the amount it would take to simply neutralize the microorganisms, Riggio said.
The increased power consumption, coupled with increased replacement costs for equipment, have placed an unnecessary burden on owners.
"Over the life of the system, the amount of power that the UV system requires and the replacement costs of the UV lamps and the various consumables may be much higher than it is for a chlorine generation system or an ozone generator," Riggio said.
Getting Ballast Water equipment type approved is challenging to begin with, Merksamer noted. But the lowering of these barriers could eventually result in financial benefits for operators.
"Manufacturers that proceeded with re-testing, and may have had to increase the UV dose to meet the USCG live-dead standard, could now potentially achieve the standard with a lower UV dose if MPN analysis is accepted. That can impact their market position, because operational costs for the vessel owner could be lower," said Merksamer.
The potential changes in type-approval testing that VIDA may result in could provide a path forward for manufacturers who have been "sitting on the sidelines" waiting to get their systems approved, Merksamer added.
"My understanding is it's quite expensive to go through these type approval processes, and so there will be significant savings to the people developing these systems, and hopefully that will be passed along to the people purchasing them," Berge said.
UV typically requires lower upfront capital costs than other treatment systems, said Riggio. But adoption of MPN would bring these costs down further. Lower required doses of radiation means less spending on equipment components like UV lamps or reactors, Riggio said.
An increase in the number and cost-effectiveness of UV systems would likely have the most appeal for owners of small to medium-sized vessels.
Larger vessels, including tankers, bulk carriers and bigger container ships, will continue to use electrochlorination, chemical injection and ozone as their preferred methods of treating Ballast Water. The higher upfront costs and relatively low operating expenses of these methods have traditionally suited larger ships, Riggio said.
But despite its power consumption costs, owners of larger ships still find many reasons to use UV technology. For one, some operators don't want to change the chemical composition of water by using chlorine. Research indicates that chlorine carries environmental consequences.
According to one study published in 2017 by the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, the use of chlorine in Ballast Water treatment increases the concentration of trihalomethanes, a group of four chemical compounds that pose health hazards when found in drinking water.
"If the point... is to increase the environmental friendliness of a ship, (UV systems) are a very environmentally friendly treatment option," Riggio said.
Operators who see the benefits of UV treatment have simply dealt with the cost of using more power, he added. Power consumption will still be a consideration, even if the Coast Guard adopts MPN. But the anticipated changes in type-approval standards could increase sales, according to Riggio.
The industry will know more when the Coast Guard releases its policy letter, although Merksamer said it might still take two to four years before the agency finalizes development of the new regulations that VIDA stipulates.
Still, she looks forward to seeing how the Coast Guard decides to approach MPN later this year.
"That's what I'm looking forward to, just seeing how they are approaching this topic and what's the solution they may have come up with. I think that's what much of the industry will be waiting for," Merksamer said.