Enforcement and compliance of the ballast water convention
Updated 11 Oct 2019
Stopping the transfer of invasive species and harmful organisms is at the heart of ballast water treatment. However, the organisms are mostly microscopic and not visible to the naked eye. More to the point, ballast water systems are not meant to make observation easy but to move very large quantities of water in quite short spans of time.
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 practice 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. In the introduction section of the 2016 guidelines, point 1.5 says: The requirements of regulation D-3 stipulate that ballast water management systems used to comply with the Convention must be approved by the Administration, taking into account these Guidelines. In addition to such ballast water management system approval, as set forth in regulation A-2 and regulation B-3, the Convention requires that discharges of ballast water from ships must meet the regulation D-2 performance standard on an on-going basis. Approval of a system is intended to screen-out management systems that would fail to meet the standards prescribed in regulation D-2 of the Convention. Approval of a system, however, does not ensure that a given system will work on all ships or in all situations. To satisfy the Convention, a 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 the circumstances under which a system may not or cannot effectively treat the ballast in its operating manual. 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.
However, with ballast water treatment regulations laying down allowed levels of micro-organisms that are permitted to be viable, seafarers who are not expected to be trained microbiologists will have great difficulty determining if the treatment process has been effective. For all practical purposes treated ballast is indistinguishable from the water that passed through the initial filter when taken on board whether the treatment was effective or not.
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. This all 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 that 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 includes 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.
Early entrants to this market were systems such as the Ballast-Check 2 from California-based Turner Designs and UK-based Chelsea Technologies’ FastBallast.
These are both fluorometers that detect viable algal organisms in the 10-50μm size class. The first is a small handheld device while the FastBallast can be used as a stand-alone device or incorporated into the treatment system because it is capable of rapid measurements including measurement of high flows.
In 2016, Turner Designs entered into an agreement with Norway-based Wilhelmsen Ships Services which now markets the device under its Nalfleet brand. In October 2018, Chelsea technologies was acquired by subsea technology developer Sonardyne International, although the intention is to continue operating as a separate company under its old name.
The Speedy Breedy developed by Bactest of Cambridge, UK is a portable precision respirometer which detects and monitors microbial activity. Detection of microbial activity is determined as a consequence of pressure transients relating to gaseous exchanges within a closed culture vessel of 50ml working volume, as a result of microbial respiration. Its maker says the system can be used by non-experts wanting to carry out microbiological tests and is also relatively inexpensive, which may make it a useful piece of equipment for measuring bacteria in fresh water supplies as well as for testing ballast.
Bactest has also developed a more sophisticated version called SeaSure, which combines the methodology of Speedy Breedy with Chelsea Technologies’ phytoplankton testing and also with a chemical contamination test developed by UK-based Palintest. The result is a fully integrated ballast water testing solution, suitable to be used on board ships, gathering test results on microbial, chemical and plankton contamination.
This data is collated into a secure report called Ballast Log that is suitable for audit and encrypted transmission to interested parties, such as ballast water treatment manufacturers, shipowners and port authorities.
Using SeaSure, shipowners can track whether their ballast water has been treated in accordance with the IMO D-2 and other standards prior to discharge without having to send samples to external laboratories – test results are available to be distributed to relevant parties before the ship enters port.
Two treatment system makers – Erma First from Greece and Hyde Marine from the US – are distributors of the SeaSure system and market it alongside their treatment systems.
Last year, Canada-based Luminultra acquired the French company Aqua-Tools which had developed a test kit that can produce a result in around 40 minutes. The method is scientifically validated to be used on board of ships and also for the type-approval of treatment systems. The compact B-QUA kit provides sufficient materials to perform 100 analyses using second-generation ATP technology that relies on the quantification of a molecule called Adenosine TriPhosphate or ATP – an energy carrier found in all living organisms.
To use the kit, a sample of the ballast water is collected and, with the equipment and chemicals provided, the tests can be carried out quite rapidly. The testing method does not require much in the way of training and is well within the capabilities of crew used to carrying out lube oil analyses or similar tests. The chemical reaction used in the test is not inhibited by salinity and works with salt concentration up to 300 PSU.
Another newcomer to testing systems is Hong Kong-based Euro-Tech, which is the parent company of the Chinese treatment system maker PACT. Its ET1302 Handheld Ballast Water Checker uses PAM fluorescence technology which measures the presence of chlorophyll as an indicator of viable phytoplankton in samples of treated water.
As things stand, the distribution arrangements between Bactest and Erma First and Hyde Marine remain the only tie-ups between system makers and testing provision. Although no treatment system maker has yet incorporated testing apparatus in its products, many believe that they may be obliged to do so in the future either because of changes in the regulations or because customers will demand it as an option.
System failure mitigation
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 D-1 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.
In the early days of the convention’s development, it was suggested that it would make practical and economic sense for ballast water to be treated ashore rather than onboard. The argument was that there are far fewer ports in the world than ships and a system ashore would have a much longer lifespan, be easier to maintain and could be a revenue stream for ports. There is some merit to the argument although in some ports ballast has to be taken or discharged at places away from the berths so as to allow the ship to manoeuvre safely and avoid hazards such as bars or shoals in the port.
A small number of system makers and engineering companies have developed port-based systems that can be housed on barges, trucks or even temporarily placed on a ship. Some of these use type-approved systems modified so as to be housed in a standard ISO container.
One such system is the Damen InvaSave produced by Damen Green Solutions. The system has already been demonstrated in the Netherlands and in January 2019, a system was sent to the Canary Islands to be demonstrated there, treating ballast from a ship in the port. The system is type-approved and has a 300m3/h capacity.
Another emergency system was demonstrated in the Great Lakes last year by two Seattle-based organisations – Global Diving & Salvage and marine engineering specialist Glostens.
Known as Ballast Responder, the mobile ballast water treatment system was developed by Glosten in cooperation with Global, the US Geological Survey and the US National Park Service.
The small mobile system is designed to be easily transported to any location to treat vessels that have unmanaged or untreated ballast water in port, or have grounded or are in some other emergency situation. It is a chemical dosing system using a biocide such as sodium hypochlorite. It doses the ship’s ballast tanks directly and the water is regularly tested until it reaches the D-2 standard. Before discharge, the water is neutralised using the same chemicals as most shipboard systems. Unlike the Damen InvaSave, the Ballast Responder is not a type-approved system but is not meant for permanent installation.
There is currently no pressure 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 IMO’s experience building phase which ends in 2022 are known. If it is demonstrated that there is a high degree of non-compliant samples taken from ships that 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.