Research centre’s withdrawal from ballast testing backs owners’ views on approval process

Today’s announcement that one of the longest established ballast water testing facilities has decided to withdraw from further type-approval testing would appear to vindicate the criticism levelled at the testing process by shipowners.

For many years. Shipowners’ organisations have argued that the IMO type-approval testing process for ballast water treatment systems was flawed and to some extent the IMO’s recent decision to revise the G8 process has shown that view was correct. For the shipowners the fear is always that having invested large sums in systems they need to know that they can rely on them to perform in operation otherwise they will be open to sanction from regulatory authorities.

Today, the US facility Maritime Environment Resource Center (MERC) at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) announced that it would complete testing of system which it has contracted to but “Due to flaws in regulations designed to minimise the risk of ballast water introductions of invasive species, MERC will no longer provide BWMS certification testing services”.

MERC has tested system for IMO type-approval and was among the first Independent Laboratories appointed by the USCG. In a statement, MERC said, “After several years of MERC efforts to ensure scientifically-sound, predictive, consistent, and transparent BWMS certification testing, it has become clear that the lack of an appropriate standardised approach and sufficient oversight in the implementation of ballast water regulations is undermining the fundamental goal of national and international policies to prevent the introduction of environmentally and economically destructive invasive species”.

“MERC has a deep understanding of the complexities and challenges associated with testing ballast water management systems against specific discharge standards. While perfection is unrealistic, it is possible to be rigorous, consistent, and transparent when testing BWMSs, which is necessary for the regulations to succeed,” said Dr. Mario Tamburri, Director of MERC and UMCES Research Professor.

Shortcomings in both the IMO G8 Guidelines and the USCG Independent Laboratory certification testing process have resulted in significant uncertainties about the quality and value of test results. For example, both approaches allow test facilities to ignore live larvae of zebra mussels and other molluscs, eggs of various species, and large algal cells simply because they often don’t or naturally cannot move on their own, and under current regulations can be presumed dead. Other basic scientific methods can clearly demonstrate that these same non-moving organisms are living and viable. Thus, the threat of introductions of new species from ballast water after treatment with a certified BWMS may not be significantly reduced.

“UMCES’ scientific integrity and reputation for providing advice for science-based decision making is of the utmost importance,” said UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory Director Dr. Thomas Miller. “Therefore, under the current regulations, which do not significantly reduce the threat of some invasive species, MERC can no longer conduct BWMS certification testing.”

The decision by MERC is remarkable in that it is a rare example of a scientific institution publicly expressing criticism of the regulatory procedure. Privately many scientists and technicians will say that regulation is too often politicised and does not take account of what is and what is not possible or will ignore scientific advice as to the effectiveness of regulations.

MERC’s decision to protect its scientific integrity is to be applauded but unfortunately it will probably be an empty gesture as the regulators are unlikely to change their approach so long as other testing facilities are prepared to continue with the status quo.

Read the Ballast Water Treatment Guide for full details on the convention and the technology.