Muddying the water

Climbing up: PSC inspectors will need to raise their capability. Credit: DW Bradshaw
Climbing up: PSC inspectors will need to raise their capability. Credit: DW Bradshaw
Careful hands: even extracting ballast samples needs care
Careful hands: even extracting ballast samples needs care
Moving in: IR Class' BWTBoat concept will pull alongside and treat ballast on demand
Moving in: IR Class' BWTBoat concept will pull alongside and treat ballast on demand
"We don’t yet have a silver bullet," Stephan Gollasch, GoConsult
"It’s a lot for the PSCs to take on. If they get it wrong and delay a ship needlessly, yes, the owner can put in a claim, via his own flag state," Maren Stuenkel, Wilhelm Borchert
Industry Database

Ballast water regs could create issues for ports as well as lines, warns Stevie Knight

Despite their recognisable necessity, one of the first speakers at a recent fleet seminar summed up the new Ballast Water Management rules “as a good example of how not to do environmental regulation”.

The issues, springing from both uncertain regulation and the implementation of new technology, promise to have a knock on effect on Port State Controls (PSCs). How well officers cope could even affect the port itself.

To start with, keeping the port’s waters safe from invasive species might not just be a question of inspectors casting an eye over ballast water treatment documentation and asking for a demonstration. Real questions now exist on how effective these plants are – especially given that a recent study from ABS reported 42% of systems were problematic or not working at all.

Therefore the onus will be thrown back onto PSCs to make sure the ballast tanks of incoming ships aren’t harbouring invasive species. That itself may be tricky.

Captain Yoss Leclerc of Québec Port Authority, and vice-president of the International Harbour Master Association, underlines the need for “technical expertise” to deal with the different systems, while Maren Stuenkel of Wilhelm Borchert adds that officers will have to ramp up their knowledge considerably. “Some of the technology will be chemical, others mechanical or ultraviolet and they’ll need to have a basic understanding of the equipment...  that means knowing what they are looking at and being able to spot any so-called ‘magic pipes’ that discharge overboard,” she says.

“It’s a lot for the PSCs to take on,” says Ms Stuenkel. “If they get it wrong and delay a ship needlessly, yes, the owner can put in a claim, via his own flag state, but the owner is losing time – and that’s more of an issue for all concerned in commercial operation.”

Testing times

There’s a further layer of uncertainty. In an ideal world, an on-the-spot ‘indicative’ test should give a clue to the state of the ballast tanks and some facilities, like those run by Saudi Aramco, are insisting on them upon arrival or during deballasting.

Stephan Gollasch of GoConsult says it’s “unfortunate” that there are (as yet) no approved, indicative tests to rely on – although he underlines there are promising technologies. More, even taking detailed samples demands care and attention at extraction otherwise these, too, can be flawed. To add to the confusion, lab tests take a couple of days, so he says the results from non-compliant ships will need to be telephoned ahead for the next port to deal with. Leanne Page of the UK’s Marine and Coastguard Agency, envisions “an expanded inspection” at the next call along with, if appropriate, prosecution still being pursued by the original port. Dr Gollasch admits: “We don’t yet have a silver bullet.”

Given the uncertainties, IMO has softened deadlines for a couple of elements including instigating a three year ‘experience building phase’, with the idea of returning to the table with detailed testing guidance in 2020/21. So, according to both Dr Gollasch and Ms Page, vessels shouldn’t, at present, be detained or delayed purely on the basis of these samples.

This doesn’t, however, leave the PSCs toothless. Ms Page adds: “If it is the view of the inspecting officer the test has failed because the system has not been operated, maintained or any other requirements of the Convention are not met then corrective action may be required.” Richard Schiferli, lead of the Paris MoU, concurs, and adds: “If a ship is non-compliant, the port State may take action such as detention or [demanding] deep water ballast water exchange”.

But simply relying on a type of installation that’s known to have problems isn’t a trigger. It’s worth noting that, as Ms Page explains, “inspectors can only assess the equipment in front of them”. This has complicated matters: even if the PSCs might be aware that a particular kind of system has a dubious performance history, prompting a closer look that may unearth further issues, that knowledge isn’t enough.

Therefore, about the only thing that remains certain is the pressure the convention will pile on officers.

Dubious practices

Some, it has to be said, are less than sanguine about the potential outcome. Panos Kirnidis, chief executive of the Palau International Ship Registry – which he says has been unfairly blacklisted – recently wrote of “dubious and questionable port state control inspections” in some regions, adding that “political influences.... [in addition to] corruption and sheer incompetence in some parts of the world” make for a volatile mix.

He’s not alone: Intercargo recently talked about the need “to persuade regional MoUs to establish auditing schemes and transparency mechanisms with the objective of targeting corruption and misbehaviour within their areas, a problem that has regrettably not been sufficiently addressed so far”.

There are some moves toward sorting it out: a recent IMO workshop discussed creating a PSC ‘single window’ along with a complaints facility and officer’s bodycams will be on the next agenda – though this is not for a couple of years.

And there are more issues ahead for the ports. As some are already pointing out, if onboard ballast systems aren’t up to the job, shore-based alternatives are pulled into the frame. This certainly would have consequences for the ports as it may result in “pressure from customers or governments to provide reception facilities”, says Captain Leclerc.

LA concerns

It’s an issue that has already caused the Port of Los Angeles to “voice its concerns”, according to Andrew Jirik, environmental specialist for POLA. He explains that while regulations similar to the IMO’s have been in place for over a year in the US, California wants to go further with an even more stringent standard.

However, he says since the state authorities have been “disappointed” with the capability of onboard ballast water treatment technologies, they’ve started looking at pump-out systems that could receive the ballast and dispose of it. Unfortunately, Mr Jirik says POLA “has had to strongly resist” the first, shore-side reception concept put to it “as just not feasible given our particular circumstances”.

This idea has been followed by a barge-based version but again, the devil is in the detail: “It’s all pretty speculative... it’s not yet proven it would meet the standards and it’s also expensive engineering; the capital costs come to over $100m,” he says, “Plus, we don’t yet know how it’s going to be paid for.”

By contrast, Sandip Patil of IR Class sees a business opportunity: “Before the BWM convention entered into force, port water was a valueless resource but now… rather than a responsibility, ports can see it as a trading commodity.”  To this end, he’s worked on a BWTBoat concept that would move ship-to-ship, treating ballast on demand. On leaving, the operators would issue a certificate of quality “in the same way that a bunker operator does today”.

It has its advantages. Firstly, it’s modular, with a number of parallel chlorination systems dealing with ballast on uptake (the resulting weak bleach keeping regrowth at bay). Secondly, a local system can be customised for continuous operation in high sediment environments – a troubling environment for onboard systems.

As Mr Patil points out, ships don’t ballast at every call so a few ports on a limited string could get the ball rolling. “Feasibility calculations show a port could charge between $0.10 and $0.50 per tonne of treated water – making it very cost competitive with the millions of dollars for a single shipboard installation, plus operating and maintenance.”


Some ports are wondering about the potential for ballast water treatment systems to directly impact commercial operations.

As Captain Carita Rönnqvist, Harbour Master for Kokkola, Finland, says, despite certification tests, ballast treatment systems might not match up to the loading rates – and if they don’t, the only option is either “for the vessel to leave with less cargo or wait until the ballast is discharged”.

There are also issues associated with extreme temperatures: she’s had reports of ice clogging systems in winter and adds that these conditions can also give rise to other failures, particularly where UV-based lights are concerned, all leading to inevitable delays.

Although Capt Rönnqvist says that while the greater burden of BWT delays will be borne by cargo owners, “longer stays may leave other vessels waiting for a berth” with the consequent issues felt by the ports themselves.


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