Who will be the ballast survivors?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

04 October 2017

With the last deadline for ballast treatment system retrofits now pushed back to 2024, the chance of some of the system makers surviving as far as then are already remote but what are the implications for shipowners after that date? Choosing the right system type has already been an expensive mistake for some early adopters with evidence that some do not work as intended and others that do not work at all. Once the retrofit bandwagon ceases to roll, the newbuild market of just a few thousand systems each year will fall well short of being able to sustain all the current players. Speaking to most of them suggests that the consensus among system makers themselves is just 10 to 15. The problem for owners is deciding which of those among the crop of nearly 90 systems is the best investment. The recent financial collapse and resurrection of the OceanSaver system is a salutary lesson not least because of the clarification by the USCG of the consequences on type-approval status of a maker going out of business. If no new owner can be found for a system when a manufacturer ceases trading, the type approval will lapse if replacement parts exactly as detailed on the original approval documents are not available. That will mean that the whole system may need to be replaced by a new type-approved system. The financial commitment by a system maker to meet the new IMO type-approval process may also mean that some will see the market as a lost cause and cut their losses and withdraw as a small number have already done. As long as the maker continues to support a legacy system there will be no problem for the shipowner but how many will commit to doing that for 25 years or so remains to be seen? One that is prepared to do so is the UK-based Coldharbour Marine. Its system is one that treats ballast in the tank using a combination of de-oxygenation by way of an inert gas plant and micro-cavitation. However, it is designed for large vessels such as tankers and bulkers and the treatment time is around four days making it unsuitable for over 85% of ships.

Fit for purpose?

Coldharbour CEO Andrew Marshall, believes that a lot of the claims made by makers will be difficult to live up to and says a number of them are well aware of that. He is one of those that believe that there will be an inevitable shakeout and says only a small number will survive. In respect of his own system – which he describes as one in the ‘weird and wonderful’ category – he says we are not competing with the majority of systems and recognises that some of those will work fine but a great many will prove not to. Quite clearly no system maker will tell an owner that their system is a bad investment but sad to say many will prove to be just that. The new type-approval process allows for system makers to place limitations on the effectiveness of treatment under certain circumstances. For a ship trading globally, it is a fair bet that on many occasions a type-approved system will not be able to treat ballast to meet the discharge standards. Despite assurances to the contrary, there are many experts who argue that a 100% kill rate is an impossible target. 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. Owners have had a brief reprise from the need for an immediate outlay on a treatment system. They should use that time wisely to ensure that the one they do eventually decide to invest in will be fit for purpose.