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Ballast Regs that Dobbs Helped to Produce Are a Big Story

Fred Dobbs

Ballast water management regulations announced this month by the U.S. Coast Guard represent the end of a busy few years of work for Old Dominion University biological oceanographer and microbial ecologist Fred Dobbs, one of the experts who contributed to the rules-making process.

But shipping company officials, shipyard owners and environmentalists are among those who are just beginning to find out what the regulations have in store for them.

Publication of the regulations in the Federal Register on March 16 did not get much attention from national media, although the rules are expected to have significant environmental and economic effects, and at least one commentator has called it the biggest maritime story of the year.

"It is good that we now have national discharge standards," Dobbs said. "Lawmakers, water-treatment vendors and the shipping industry long have been waiting for them."

The new regulations will require oceangoing cargo ships calling on United States ports to install treatment systems to kill potentially invasive organisms in their ballast water. Industry insiders have said that 40,000 or more vessels will have to undergo this retrofitting and that the cost could range up to $1 million per ship.

Strictly speaking, the Coast Guard is amending its regulations on ballast water management by establishing a standard for the allowable concentration of living organisms in ballast water discharged from ships into waters of the United States. In addition, it is amending its regulations for engineering equipment by establishing an approval process for ballast water management systems.

Nearly a decade ago, Mounir Laroussi, ODU professor of electrical and computer engineering, devoted months of research - together with Dobbs - to an ultraviolet light system that would zap unwanted organisms in ballast water with radiation. Laroussi went on to obtain a patent for a new type of UV lamp that would be particularly suited to ballast water management systems, but the research came to a halt because so few ship owners around the world were installing these systems. The owners' reluctance to act was based largely on uncertainty about regulations that were in the works worldwide.

"With standards in place, the industry will swiftly move to outfit ships with water-treatment technologies," Dobbs said. "Previously, there had been understandable reticence on its part to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per ship to install devices that might or might not pass muster, depending on what the regulations turned out to be."

Laroussi said this week when he learned of the new Coast Guard regulations that he intended to discuss with Dobbs the possibility of returning to the UV system research.

Joseph Keefe, the lead commentator for MaritimeProfessional.com, wrote that the new regulations are "the biggest maritime story of the year," bigger even than the cruise ship Concordia running aground in Italy. The regulatory requirement "will cost ship operators billions of dollars, while at the same time injecting the same amount of capital into shipbuilding, repair and conversion industries and significantly ramp up maritime-related employment."

Federal regulations for ballast water apply to fresh waters frequented by ships, as well as to estuaries and coastal U.S. waters. The government has said that commercial shipping vessels make more than 90,000 visits to U.S. waterways each year. They bring not only cargo but also ballast water that was taken in from coastal port areas where they began their journeys. The ballast provides stability during transit, but is typically released when the ship reaches its destination.

Some vessels flush out their ballast tanks while at sea to eject stowaway organisms in open waters, where the organisms are either killed by the very salty water or at least have no chance of flourishing. Still, much of the ballast water dumped in ports and coastal waters contains a variety of aquatic organisms, ranging from microscopic plants and animals to mussels, crabs and even schools of fish. In new environments, without natural enemies or other controls, these organisms may flourish and present a variety of ecological and economical hazards.

A panel of experts including Dobbs issued a National Academies/National Research Council report last year recommending a graduated response by the federal government to the need for a new ballast water management program. The new regulations published by the Coast Guard generally follow the report's recommendation by establishing new standards now, and calling for more research and a probable tightening of the standards in coming years.

That National Research Council panel was convened at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard. Those two federal entities worked together to create new standards to regulate the concentrations of living organisms discharged in ballast water.

Dobbs also served on a second study group that advised the EPA on treatment systems to remove or kill organisms in ships' ballast tanks. He was the only scientist to have participated in both studies.

The ODU professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences said it is no coincidence that the standards proposed by the Coast Guard are fully congruent with those in the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Ballast Water Convention. Once the convention is ratified, which is predicted by some to happen within months, discharge standards will be the same throughout the maritime world.

Dobbs noted that the new regulations will give the commercial shippers the time, up to several years, to install the devices necessary to filter, irradiate, chlorinate or in other ways remove or kill organisms "hitchhiking" in ballast water.

Keefe, the MaritimeProfessional.com commentator, said some IMO delegates were already complaining that there were not enough approved water-treatment systems for shipowners to choose from and that shipyards did not have the capacity to accomplish the retrofitting in due time. "Others, however, showed more optimism and instead encouraged shipowners to start installing ballast water management systems on their ships in order to avoid possible bottlenecks at a later stage."

Industry guesstimates, according to Keefe, are that up to 10,000 ships a year will be retrofitted with the systems between now and 2015.

Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, told The Associated Press that the new regulations were mostly good news for shipowners who have delayed installing equipment until they knew what would be required. "This will create a huge international demand for ballast water treatment equipment," the AP quoted Fisher as saying. "Companies that manufacture it will be able to justify spending the money for mass production. The most viable and cost-effective systems will float to the top."

The AP and many other news organizations reported disappointment from groups in the United States and Canada that had been lobbying for far-reaching ballast water safeguards. But the Coast Guard, in a news release, said it and its advisers felt the new regulations were "the most stringent that vessels can practicably implement and that the Coast Guard can enforce at this time."

Added Dobbs: "Note that even during its formulation of these discharge standards, the Coast Guard has been looking ahead. Will it be possible to make today's standards even more stringent, and in so doing, presumably more protective of the environment? To do so will require great improvements not only in water-treatment technology, but also in scientists' ability to detect the presence of a very small number of living organisms in very large volumes of water."

This article was posted on: March 27, 2012

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