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Barge Visiting Norfolk to Help Scientists Study Ballast Water Treatment Technologies

  • Mario Tamburri (left) and Fred Dobbs (right in hat) hosted a tour of the test barge.
  • The Mobile Ballast Water Test Platform in Norfolk

An unusual-looking barge outfitted with huge tanks and colorful pipes will be on the downtown Norfolk waterfront during parts of the summer to help scientists such as Old Dominion University's Fred Dobbs combat potentially invasive aquatic organisms that move around the world in the ballast water of ships.

Dobbs, a biological oceanographer and microbial ecologist, is one of the nation's leading researchers on ballast water contamination of our coastal waters and the Great Lakes. He was among the experts who advised the federal agencies that set new and tighter ballast-water controls earlier this year.

The new Coast Guard regulations will require oceangoing cargo ships calling on United States ports to install treatment systems to eliminate most, if not all, of the 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.

The 155-foot barge, which tied up at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility in Norfolk for two weeks in June and which will return later in the summer, is equipped with two tanks similar to a ship's ballast tanks. It is designed to test various organism-killing treatment technologies that university researchers and private companies have produced. Called the Mobile Ballast Water Test Platform, it is part of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) research fleet.

Dobbs noted that the new Coast Guard 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. A pressing question just now is which technology, or technologies working in tandem, will be up to the task.

Mario Tamburri, who directs UMCES' Maritime Environmental Resource Center, supervised tests earlier this spring in the northern Chesapeake Bay in which the barge was outfitted with a treatment system utilizing a filter and ultraviolet rays. Tamburri was in Norfolk with the barge in June to work with Dobbs on preliminary logistics and planning for further testing that will be done in Hampton Roads this summer. Dobbs said the researchers want to test treatment systems in a variety of geographical locations, each with its own climate and water conditions. The Norfolk harbor is saltier, for example, than Baltimore harbor, where the early tests were conducted.

Dobbs and Tamburri hosted a tour of the barge Monday, June 18, for representatives of Maersk Line Ltd. shipping company, the Virginia Port Authority, NOAA and ODU. The contingent from ODU included Mohammad Karim, vice president for research; Rodger Harvey, chair of the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Julian Facenda, acting executive director of the ODU Research Foundation; and Karen Eck, director of research development.

Testing done on the barge will be financed by public money and private contributions of companies that want to sell treatment systems. Eventually, the results of tests on this barge and on two stationary facilities elsewhere in the country will help the federal government compile a list of treatment systems that are officially approved for use by ships calling on U.S. ports.

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 at the time. "Lawmakers, water-treatment vendors and the shipping industry long have been waiting for them."

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.

"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."

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 of Science/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 (EPA) 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 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.

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: June 18, 2012

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