Ballast Water Regulation in The United States - United States Regulation of Ballast Water Discharge

United States Regulation of Ballast Water Discharge

Clean Water Act regulations currently exempt ballast water discharges incidental to the normal operation of cruise ships and other vessels from NPDES permit requirements (see above discussions concerning sewage and graywater). Because of the growing problem of introduction of invasive species into U.S. waters via ballast water, in January 1999, a number of conservation organizations, fishing groups, native American tribes, and water agencies petitioned the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to repeal its 1973 regulation exempting ballast water discharge, arguing that ballast water should be regulated as the “discharge of a pollutant” under the Clean Water Act’s Section 402 permit program. The EPA rejected the petition in September 2003, saying that the “normal operation” exclusion is long-standing agency policy, to which Congress has acquiesced twice (in 1979 and 1996) when it considered the issue of aquatic nuisance species in ballast water and did not alter the EPA’s CWA interpretation. Further, the EPA said that other ongoing federal activities related to control of invasive species in ballast water are likely to be more effective than changing the NPDES rules. Until recently, these efforts to limit ballast water discharges by cruise ships and other vessels were primarily voluntary, except in the Great Lakes. Since 2004, all vessels equipped with ballast water tanks must have a ballast water management plan.

After the denial of their administrative petition, the environmental groups filed a lawsuit seeking to force EPA to rescind the regulation that exempts ballast water discharges from CWA permitting. In March 2005, a federal district court ruled in favor of the groups, and in September 2006, the court remanded the matter to EPA with an order that the challenged regulation be set aside by September 30, 2008 (Northwest Environmental Advocates v. EPA, No. C 03-05760 SI (N.D.Cal, September 18, 2006)). The district court rejected EPA’s contention that Congress had previously acquiesced in exempting the “normal operation” of vessels from CWA permitting and disagreed with EPA’s argument that the court’s two-year deadline creates practical difficulties for the agency and the affected industry. Significantly, while the focus of the environmental groups’ challenge was principally to EPA’s permitting exemption for ballast water discharges, the court’s ruling — and its mandate to EPA to rescind the exemption in 40 CFR §122.3(a) — applies fully to other types of vessel discharges that are covered by the regulatory exemption, including graywater and bilge water.

The government has appealed the district court’s ruling, and the parties are waiting for a ruling from the appeals court. However, in June 2007, EPA also initiated steps seeking public comment on regulating ballast water discharges from ships, an information-gathering prelude to a potential rulemaking in response to the district court’s order.

The 110th Congress has been considering ballast water discharge issues, specifically legislation to provide a uniform national approach for addressing aquatic nuisance species from ballast water under a program administered by the Coast Guard (S. 1578, ordered reported by the Senate Commerce Committee on September 27, 2007, and H.R. 2830 (H.Rept. 110-338)). Some groups oppose S. 1578 and H.R. 2830, because the legislation would preempt states from enacting ballast water management programs more stringent than Coast Guard requirements, while the CWA does allow states to adopt requirements more stringent than in federal rules. Also, while the CWA permits citizen suits to enforce the law, the pending legislation includes no citizen suit provisions.

To minimize the spread of invasive species in U.S. waterways, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard are developing plans to regulate the concentration of living organisms discharged in the ballast water of ships. A June 2011 National Research Council study provided advice on the process of setting these limits. The study found that determining the exact number of organisms that could be expected to launch a new population is complex. It suggested an initial step of establishing a benchmark for the concentrations of organisms in ballast water below current levels, and then using models to analyze experimental and field-based data to help inform future decisions about ballast water discharge standards.

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