October 2020 and the ballast system choice dilemma

October 2020 and the ballast system choice dilemma

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 07 April 2020


No one can pretend that the transition of the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments from its adoption in 2004 to its coming into force in September 2017 has been an easy journey. The planned introduction in 2009 was soon delayed when it became clear that the requisite number of signature nations representing 35% of the world fleet by gross tonnage was not going to be achieved in time.

It is a matter of history that the 35% figure was not achieved until September 2016 and consequently the Convention entered into force on 8 September 2017. Because some owners had succeeded in circumventing the retrofit dates by decoupling their vessels’ IOPP renewal dates from the five year renewal cycle, the IMO rewarded all those owners which had not done so with a two year delay beginning the retrofit cycle for ships built prior to September 2017 in September 2019. This means that by 7 September 2024, every ship that is obliged to have a functioning ballast treatment system will have had one installed unless some exemption is given by the flag state.

Even before the convention came into effect, the IMO had finally accepted that the guidelines for type-approval procedures – the G8 guideline – was not fit for purpose. To rectify this the IMO adopted Resolution MEPC.279(70) in October 2016. This document is known as the 2016 Guidelines for approval of ballast water management systems (G8). The new guidelines were at that time voluntary but MEPC.279(70) was superseded in October 2019 by Resolution MEPC.300(72) the BWMS Code which makes the new guidelines mandatory as from 28 October 2020. The BWMS Code text is available here.

Effectively this means that until 27 October 2020 a ship operator may fit any IMO approved ballast treatment system to his ship, but after that date only systems approved to the new standard are permitted to be installed. The requirement does not mean that old systems fitted prior to the new deadline need to be upgraded in any way.

Ballast treatment system makers have been rushing to get the new IMO type approval for their products but through to the end of March 2020 only around one in four or five previously approved systems have been successful in gaining the new type approvals. Some system makers may decide that the additional expense in gaining the new type approval is too high considering the anticipated returns in a fiercely competitive market. Some have already withdrawn.

As is well known, the US has a different approach to system type approval and requires ships operating in US waters to have a system approved to US standards. The exemption given to ships with IMO type approved systems on board when the US Coast Guard had yet to approve any system is coming to an end shortly.

The USCG has now approved almost 30 systems for use in US waters but not all of these are permitted to be installed on US flagged vessels because of the Jones Act. The systems approved by the US cover a range of technologies and capacities such that no vessel type has any reason for requesting exemptions from installing a system.

Many ships planning to have systems installed in 2020 will have suffered unintended delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar problems have been encountered by ships planning to install scrubbers but whereas a ship without a scrubber can remain compliant by using appropriate fuels, a ship without a ballast system installed is technically in breach of the Convention and could be penalised by PSC authorities. The delays in ship work are likely to be repeated in some of the testing facilities so system makers planning to gain type-approval in time to meet the October 2020 deadline may be somewhat troubled at this moment.

Some comfort might be taken from recent announcements by Paris MoU, Tokyo MoU and USCG that under the present COVID-19 precautions, the authorities will take a pragmatic approach regarding any non-compliances providing the shipowner can show that a plan is in place to bring the ship back into compliance at the earliest opportunity. Such plans should have been approved by the flag state so it would be a wise precaution for any ship struggling to get a ballast treatment system installed to raise the matter with the flag state at an early stage.

Since the convention came into force, the IMO has laid out a timetable for what it has called the ballast water experience building phase (EBP). This is to identify challenges to the implementation of the convention that were not foreseen during its development. It has to be said that there has been much debate on perceived problems with the convention that will presumably be addressed once the EBP is completed. The EBP was established by MEPC at its seventy-first session in July 2017 as a means for carrying out a systematic and evidence-based review of the BWM Convention.

The timetable for the EBP runs until 2022 and at MEPC 74 in 2019 a summary was taken of early data concerning implementation. MEPC 75 should have seen the delivery of a Global data report covering the information gathered over the last two years. Once again the COVID-19 crisis has interfered with MEPC 75 due to take place in March 2020 having been postponed indefinitely. This should not unduly alter the date planned in 2022 for the final report and identified issues to be advised to MEPC 78. The current timetable would see MEPC 79 in late 2022 having the package of any amendments agreed.

ShipInsight is producing a ballast water guide in May. For more information please contact me at malcolm@shipinsight.com.

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