Rules Offered on Ships' Ballast Water

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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Coast Guard issued proposed standards for ballast water treatment Thursday that had been long awaited by environmental groups, legislators and others concerned about the impact of invasive aquatic species transported via ballast water in ships.

There currently is no federal requirement to treat ballast water in order to kill living organisms. Oceangoing vessels must exchange their ballast or flush out their tanks in the open seas before entering a U.S. port, but the tanks might still contain species from distant waters.

The proposed Coast Guard regulations, open for a 90-day public comment period, would mimic the International Maritime Organization's standards for an initial phase and then become essentially 1,000 times stricter for a second phase, as measured in numbers of live organisms per cubic meter of ballast water. California has a standard 1,000 times stricter than the IMO, as does New York for new vessels launching in 2013.

But Coast Guard and industry officials said it was not clear whether it would be technologically possible to meet the stricter standards. The regulations, published in the Federal Register on Friday, include feasibility studies and the chance to revise the standards.

"That loophole could swallow the law," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation.

Environmental groups are also disappointed in the Coast Guard's timetable. Ships would have to meet Phase 1 requirements between 2014 and 2016, depending on a vessel's size, and might not be subject to Phase 2 standards for another five years.

But Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Christopher T. O'Neil said the need to develop not only ballast treatment technology but also systems to test that technology is a slow process.

"Currently, there isn't enough capacity in labs to determine that discharged ballast water would meet those stringent Phase 2 standards," he said. "You're developing a lot of moving pieces at the same time."

The shipping industry and environmental groups have long sought federal ballast requirements. Currently, 11 coastal and Great Lakes states have their own ballast standards on the books or in the works, according to O'Neil. The IMO standard, established in 2004, is widely used as a benchmark though many environmentalists and legislators consider it too lenient.

The Coast Guard's regulations would not preempt state standards.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is formulating its ballast treatment requirements. It is not clear exactly how this would overlap with the Coast Guard's mandate. But Coast Guard Cmdr. Gary T. Croot, chief of the environmental standards division, said the two agencies have worked closely together and are likely to end up with very similar standards and shared enforcement responsibilities.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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