Ecochlor – new US “VIDA” regulation for discharges

Apr 01 2021

The US is planning a new set of regulations for discharges from tankers (and other vessels), including from ballast water and scrubber wash water, the “Vessel Incidental Discharge Act”. Steve Candito, CEO of Ecochlor, explained the implications.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing a new set of regulations covering discharge of ballast water and scrubber wash water (among a list of 20 different types of discharge), under the new Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA). Online comments are accepted up to November 25.


One interesting change relevant to tankers is that currently, companies operating US flagged crude oil tankers going from one US port to another, such as Alaska to a West Coast refinery, are exempted from the need to have ballast water systems. This exemption will be removed, so systems will need to be installed.


The regulations will also describe more specifically what can go overboard – how clean the water needs to be before it can be discharged, and operational requirements such as how often different systems should be inspected.


Tanker operators will probably pay most attention to the rules about discharge from ballast tanks, but the rules also cover discharge from bilges, boilers, cathodic protection, chain lockers, decks, desalination and purification systems, elevator pits, exhaust gas cleaning (scrubbers), fire protection equipment, gas turbines, grey water systems, hulls and ‘niche’ areas, inert gas systems, motor gasoline and compensation systems, non-oily machinery, pools and spas, refrigeration and air conditioning, seawater piping, and sonar domes.

Dead or non-viable

VIDA resolves a longstanding issue with a differentiation between US ballast water regulations, which currently say organisms have to be dead, and IMO regulations, which say they need to be “non-viable”, or unable to reproduce.


With VIDA, the US will align with the IMO D2 Discharge regulations, but the non-viable standard is still an open issue.


There is some controversy, with the US Coast Guard saying that there is no acceptable testing procedure for ‘non-viable’, while there is an approved testing procedure for ‘dead’. For example, a system where organisms which are alive will drink a dye which will then show up in their bodies. “The Coast Guard has said they are not going to use the non-viable standard unless they see a testing protocol they are comfortable with,” Mr Candito says.


But, “there’s all kinds of test standards out there, a lot of information that various parties have provided to the USCG to [demonstrate] how these non-viable testing protocols can work.”


Water exchange

Another requirement in the new rules (but not the old ones), is that for vessels going to the North American Great Lakes, ballast water must be both exchanged mid ocean, and treated before  it is discharged. This is confusing, with people reasonably asking why they need to exchange water if they are also going to treat it.


Ballast water exchange regulations were developed as an interim measure before type approved ballast water management systems (BWMS) were available. The idea was that by exchanging ballast water from the port it was loaded, with ballast water mid ocean, you would be less likely to transport invasive species to the discharge port.


There have been safety concerns, with the ship’s stability being affected during the time ballast water is being exchanged. “Exchange was viewed as a temporary measure until we had systems onboard,” he says.


Mr Candito believes that the regulation could be the result of a compromise between EPA and environmental groups, who had been pushing for more stringent standards than the international (IMO) standard. The shipping industry will welcome the fact that VIDA and IMO standards are aligned.


The Great Lakes are a very sensitive environmental area, with fresh water. “When you introduce organisms from outside it is really a problem,” Mr. Candito says.


But tanker operators may wish to consider sharing their views on this regulation with EPA, to say that there would be no additional benefit to ballast water exchange if ballast water is treated properly. And they can say there could be safety implications from doing the exchange. (Note, this needs to be done before Nov 25).


Another special regulation applies to vessels discharging ballast in the US West Coast – California, Oregon and Washington. If the ballast water has been loaded in a freshwater lake, or sea with low salt content (the cut off is 0.018 salt concentration), the water must be exchanged mid ocean.


Another clause says that this ballast water exchange is not required if vessels have a system which can treat water to 100 times the current standard. But there are no systems available today approved to achieve this standard.


IMO testing changes

Meanwhile at the IMO, there are moves toward requirements for full testing upon installation of a system, Mr. Candito says.


Currently, shipowners do not need to test the specific system upon installation on their ship, they can rely on the fact that the system itself has been through a type approved test.


“When the system went through its type approved testing, you had some experts operating the system, the independent lab’s people,” he says. “Once you installed the system, you have the vessel’s crew operating the system during  the testing.”


“The system may work if properly operated, but the system may not work if not properly operated by the crew.”


Sometimes BWMS are being tested, failing the test, and the shipowner is blaming the system, rather than understanding that the people operating it may not be familiar with the system and properly trained on it.


Mr. Candito is fairly unique in having a background both at sea (serving as a marine engineer onboard Exxon USA’s tanker fleet) and in law (working as a maritime attorney with Haight Garner Poor & Havens), before spending 20 years at an environmental services firm.


He recognizes that the legal burden on tanker operators is becoming very cumbersome. “How is a shipowner supposed to understand all these ballast water details? They [also] have to worry about scrubber discharge, grey water discharges, black water discharges, they really need to be experts on everything, it is really difficult.


“I’m an expert on ballast water, but not necessarily all of the requirements under VIDA. Being a lawyer helps me decipher some of these things.”


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