After a long delay the 2004 Ballast convention entered into force on 8 September 2017, after that date all new buildings with a keel laying on or after that date are required to be fitted with a ballast water treatment system at delivery. For most existing ships the requirement to fit systems would begin after 8 September 2019 and run to 2024.
At MEPC 72 it was agreed that a review and amendments to the convention would likely take place in the Autumn of 2022. This would allow for three years of data from an earlier experience-building phase (EBP) running from 2017 through to 2020 and eighteen months of analysis of data gathered.
It is during this period that the arguments put forward by shipping bodies about the effectiveness of treatment systems and the troubles experienced when operating them will finally be proved right or wrong.
The main issue with ballast treatment is that to the naked eye, deciding whether a system is effective or not in removing microscopic organisms is practically impossible. Crew can monitor and measure the flow rate of ballast and will know if a filter is blocked but not if it is worn to the point where it allows larger organisms through the screens. Crew can also check the salinity of the water so would likely know if the water is outside the parameters the electrochlorination or electrolysis type system is able to operate with. Similarly, they might be able to determine if the water is too turbid for a UV system to work effectively.
Unlike monitoring exhaust systems where gas detecting sensors can measure very small changes in the make-up of the exhaust or treating bilge water through a separator equipped with a 15ppm alarm, determining if ballast water meets the convention requirements is not possible on a continuous basis. In fact it is almost impossible to even know if a system is operating as it is meant to.
The new IMO G8 Guidelines for system approval adopted in 2016 should tighten up the type-approval process but even here it is recognised that not all systems will work under all circumstances. And yet, to satisfy the Convention, a ballast discharge must comply with the D-2 standard throughout the life of the ship. Under the new G8 process, system makers are expected to set out in operating manuals, the circumstances under which a system may not or cannot effectively treat the ballast. That is well and good but it offers no assistance to crews as to what to do under the circumstances.
So it is clear that while the IMO recognises that systems may sometimes not be capable of meeting the discharge standard, the ship is not excused from doing so. For their part, ships’ crews should generally be capable of operating the equipment on board and to understand when it is not working correctly as regards pumping or flow of the water.
Almost nobody expects that when ships are obliged to use a treatment system there will be no PSC inspections of the system operation and its ability to meet the discharge standard. Sampling by PSC inspectors will usually involve laboratory testing with the results known only after what may be a considerable delay. All of which leaves shipowners open to penalties if the treatment system is defective for any reason.
Despite assurances to the contrary, there are many experts who argue that a 100% kill rate is an impossible target for any system. That should be a worry for owners as PSC authorities are
not known for their leniency and in certain cases, failure to meet requirements is seen as a revenue stream for governments and regulatory bodies as many owners who have fallen foul of ISM inspections can testify. The IMO may talk about contingency arrangements but it has no control over the action of governments who do not wish to fall in with those arrangements.
Several of the system makers have integrated data recording into the control of their products allowing ships to prove when and where ballast treatment was carried out. However, while some systems will also record chemical dosing and other operational parameters, none so far include any form of analysis of treated water to determine effectiveness.
This could prove problematic for operators if PSC testing shows that the treatment standards were not met. However, a number of specialist companies have developed products which are claimed to allow testing for some organisms present in ballast water. Although these devices do not test for every organism or bacteria mentioned in the IMO convention or US regulations, the presence of any living organisms in the range that can be tested for will be an indication that the system is not working effectively.
Some system makers are discussing with these specialist testing companies concerning incorporating their products into systems and this may well be something that all system makers are obliged to adopt in future. Importantly, some PSC authorities are also taking an interest in the testing systems and some have even committed to using one or other of them for PSC purposes. If the authorities are convinced of the effectiveness of testing systems, they will be more likely to accept results of onboard testing using essentially the same equipment.
It is inevitable that during normal operations, some ballast systems will suffer malfunctions. Some of these may be minor irritations but on occasions it is likely that the system will become incapable of treating ballast at all. Under such circumstances, a contingency plan is an essential element that should be incorporated into the ship’s Ballast Water Management Plan (required as part of the IMO Convention regulations) and into the ship’s standard operating procedures.
For ships engaged on long ocean voyages, there will be at least some opportunity to carry out ballast exchange using the IMO D1 standard. However, while there is now an international convention in force requiring ships to treat ballast to a standardised level, port states are free to set their own regulations covering discharge into territorial waters. This is not so much a failing of the convention itself but of the system and charter under which the IMO operates and where it is powerless to regulate for states as it does for ships.
There is currently no compunction on ports to make emergency treatment systems available but that is something that may change in the future. The probability of it happening may increase after the results of the experience building phase are known after 2022. If it is demonstrated that there is a high degree of non-compliant samples taken from ships which are employing best practices, that may add credence to shipowners’ claims that a high number of systems do not perform in practice as well as they should. There would then be a need for some recognition of the fact that with the best will in the world, shipowners cannot always meet their obligations under the convention.