• Shifting tides: Economic consequences propel a sea change in ballast water compliance

Water/Wastewater

Shifting tides: Economic consequences propel a sea change in ballast water compliance

Nov 30 2023

The 'polluter pays' principle is beginning to leave a lasting impact on shipowners, particularly in their financial realm, as penalties for ballast water pollution in US waters set a precedent for wider regulatory enforcement. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently imposed substantial fines on several industry players for Clean Water Act violations related to ballast water discharge, inspection, monitoring, and reporting. This trend may signal a broader shift in shipping regulations aimed at safeguarding marine ecosystems.

In recent months, the US has issued hefty fines, such as the $165,000 penalty imposed on a major shipping company for four vessels calling at US ports. Two other companies faced fines of $137,000 and $200,000 for violations involving two vessels each. The 'polluter pays' principle is gaining traction, holding shipping companies accountable for the environmental impact of their operations.

Birgir Nilsen, Co-founder of Optimarin, a Norwegian ballast water treatment specialist, and President of the Ballast Water Equipment Manufacturers Association (BEMA), emphasises shipping's ethical responsibility to mitigate environmental harm through proper ballast water treatment. He underscores the need for stronger port state enforcement of the International Maritime Organisation's (IMO) Ballast Water Management (BWM) Convention, implemented in 2017.

Despite the BWM Convention's requirements for vessels over 400gt to have approved ballast water management plans and treatment systems by September 2024, global port state enforcement has been inconsistent. Nilsen advocates for more active testing of systems by port states, a measure currently more prominent in the US, which has developed its own stringent regime outside the BWM Convention.

Ballast water pollution, identified by the UN as one of the four major threats to the global environment, poses severe risks to marine ecosystems. The transfer of invasive aquatic species through ballast water has led to the disruption of finely balanced ecosystems, impacting biodiversity, coastal economies, and global food security. Approximately 35,000 ships carry 10 billion tonnes of ballast water at any given time, transporting over 3,000 species.

Invasive species carried in ballast water, such as bacteria and small invertebrates, can cause invisible pollution with devastating effects on fisheries. Nilsen contends that despite being less visible than CO2 emissions, the impact of ballast water pollution becomes evident years later, making communication about its importance challenging.

As regulatory scrutiny tightens, Nilsen emphasises that having a reliable ballast water treatment system is essential for future trading opportunities. Port state intervention is crucial to ensure the consistent functioning of systems labelled as compliant, as inadequate monitoring and maintenance can lead to system failures.

In conclusion, the economic consequences of non-compliance with ballast water regulations are reshaping the maritime landscape. The industry is witnessing a paradigm shift as ethical responsibility, regulatory pressures, and economic considerations converge to propel the adoption of effective ballast water management practices.


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