New VIDA could end differential ballast treatment in Great Lakes

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 20 November 2018


A new act making its way through the US regulatory regime may result in US and Canadian ballast treatment rules converging.

Earlier this month the US Senate approved changes to testing of ballast water treatment systems which were reported by ShipInsight here. The Senate approval of the Vessel Incidental Discharges Act (VIDA) 2018 Bill was simultaneous with another piece of legislation – the 2018 Coast Guard Authorization Act – which will govern how ballast water treatment regulation is promulgated and enforced.

The VIDA rules have been generally welcomed by the shipping industry as under it EPA and the US Coast Guard are obliged to set Federal Standards which could remove some of the anomalies whereby regulation may differ in individual states.

The ballast regulations have been debated since a 2006 court ruling ordering the government to include ballast discharge under Clean Water Act enforcement. But until now ship owners and environmental groups had battled to a draw in Congress over how the rules should be applied, with no legislation able to advance.

Section 903 of the new VIDA has been amended to take account of some of the objections. In particular it would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act by providing for a uniform national standard for incidental vessel discharges that are part of normal vessel operations. It would give the EPA primary responsibility for setting standards for vessel incidental discharges and directs the EPA administrator, within two years, to establish performance standards for marine pollution control devices for incidental vessel discharges, and it directs the administrator to request a written concurrence from the USCG for the standards.

Allowing EPA to retain a leading role is a major change from the last version that was defeated in April this year. New Section 903 gives the USCG primary responsibility for administering, monitoring, and enforcing standards for vessel incidental discharges, through regulation that is consistent with the discharge standards that EPA establishes.

However, while working towards a Federal standard for ballast water treatment, the section preserves certain flexibilities for some states and regions to set, administer, and enforce vessel pollutant discharges. In particular it provides a process for Great Lakes states, working through the Great Lakes Commission, to develop enhanced vessel discharge standards for vessels operating within the Great Lakes System and submit them to the EPA and Coast Guard for approval. There does also remain a provision for states to establish areas where ballast discharge is prohibited.

The involvement of the Great Lakes Commission – a binational organisation involving the US and Canada – should help ensure that ballast regulations throughout the Great Lakes are the same in US and Canadian waters.

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