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EPA Issues Ballast Water Discharge Permits For Both Large, Smaller Commercial Ships

Friday, December 2, 2011

By Amena H. Saiyid 

The Environmental Protection Agency on Nov. 30 released a draft permit that for the first time would set technology-based effluent limits to regulate the discharge of ballast water from large commercial ships, tankers, and other vessels.

The draft permit would cover vessels 79 feet or longer, while a separate draft permit issued Nov. 30 would cover the same categories of vessels that are smaller than 79 feet, although the smaller vessels could use best management practices to control discharges and would not have to meet the discharge limits.

The two permits would replace an existing vessel general permit issued in 2008. That permit only covers the larger vessels after Congress moved to exempt smaller vessels.

The draft permit for larger vessels contains technology-based effluent limits designed to regulate the discharge of ballast water containing ship-borne pollutants and invasive species, such as the Asian carp and zebra mussels.

The draft vessel general permit, or VGP, would replace the current 2008 general permit for commercial vessels, such as cruise ships and oil tankers, that are 79 feet or longer. The current permit expires Dec. 19, 2013.

EPA issues five-year general discharge permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting program authorized by Section 402 of the Clean Water Act.

EPA sent the draft permits to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review in late August (42 ER 1994, 9/9/11).

EPA said it will take comments on both draft permits for 75 days following publication in the Federal Register.

Public Hearings Scheduled

In addition, EPA will hold a public hearing on Jan. 11, 2012, at the Washington, D.C. , headquarters. It also will hold a public hearing on Jan. 23, 2012, in Chicago. The agency also plans to hold a webcast at an unspecified date in late January.

The current NPDES vessel general permit regulates about 69,000 domestic and foreign vessels, according to EPA. It requires operators of commercial vessels that are 79 feet or longer to obtain an NPDES permit for 26 types of discharges that are “incidental to normal operation.”

Tougher Bilge Water Requirements Possible

EPA said the permit for larger ships would continue to regulate the 26 specific discharge categories that were contained in the 2008 permit and, for the first time, manage the discharge of fish hold effluent.

The draft permit also contains best management practice requirements for dealing with mechanical systems that may leak lubricants into the water and for exhaust gas scrubber wash water, which EPA said “would reduce the amount of oil and other pollutants that enter U.S. waters.”

EPA said it would take comment on potentially more stringent requirements for bilge water discharges.

The draft permit also includes a numeric standard based on the recommendations of the National Research Council and EPA's own Science Advisory Board and which is consistent with International Maritime Organization recommendations.

Best Management Practices for Smaller Vessels

In addition, for the first time, EPA will issue a draft permit for vessels smaller than 79 feet. Unlike its counterpart, this permit would prescribe best management practices, rather than a numeric standard, to control discharges of gray water, oily residue, fuel, fish hold effluent, and ballast water.

The smaller vessel general permit, or sVGP, would go into effect at the conclusion of a current moratorium enacted by Congress that exempts all incidental discharges from such vessels, with the exception of ballast water, from permit requirements until Dec. 18, 2013.

Congress passed a law in July 2010 that imposed a two-year moratorium on NPDES permitting requirements for commercial vessels less than 79 feet in length and commercial fishing vessels regardless of size, except for their ballast water discharges. It was subsequently extended to Dec. 18, 2013, to modify the date on which EPA and applicable states may require permits for discharges from certain vessels.

EPA Estimates Costs

EPA estimates that a draft VGP permit could cost domestic ships, tankers, and other vessels $6.5 million to $20.9 million a year, including paperwork costs and applicable practices for controlling discharges other than ballast water.

Comments identified by Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2011-0141 on the draft vessel general permit for vessels that are 79 feet or longer, and comments identified by Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2011-0150 on the draft general permit for vessels smaller than 79 feet may be submitted to http://www.regulations.gov.


EPA's draft 2013 vessel general permits, along with a summary of the draft permit requirements, are available at http://cfpub.epa.gov/npdes/vessels/vgpermit.cfm. 

For more information on the renewed draft vessel general permit, contact Ryan Albert in EPA's Office of Wastewater Management at (202) 564-0763 or vgp@epa.gov. 

For more information about the smaller vessel general permit, contact Robin Danesi at (202) 564-1846 or svgp@epa.gov.