The maritime industry is pushing Congress for relief from a web of federal and state regulations for ballast water and other vessel discharges.

The patchwork of rules “makes compliance complicated, confusing and costly,” Tom Allegretti, president of the American Waterways Operators (AWO), told a House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing in early March. “It’s an operational nightmare for vessel owners. It’s legally treacherous for companies and legally treacherous for mariners to operate within the system.”  

Congress can fix the problem with a single standard, he said. “We implore you to take action.”

At issue are U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards as well as the North American Emission Control Area (ECA), which requires low-sulfur fuel within 200 miles of the coast. Last April, EPA issued a final vessel general permit regulating discharges from commercial vessels greater than 79 feet in length, excluding military and recreational vessels. Under ECA’s initial rule, sulfur content was capped at 1%, but a tougher 0.1% limit starts next January.

What’s more, “some states have laws in place forcing vessel owners to treat their ballast water to a standard for which no technology has yet been invented,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R- N.J., who chaired the hearing. “The situation is ridiculous.”

The two different federal statutes resulted from the Coast Guard working under the Invasive Species Act, and the EPA working under the Clean Water Act.

“We are trying to mesh them as best we can,” said Rear Adm. Joseph Servidio, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for prevention policy. Michael Shapiro, EPA’s principal deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Water, agreed.

LoBiondo pointed out that Coast Guard rules let vessel owners seek an extension if treatment technologies don’t exist or can’t be installed by the deadline. “The EPA provides no mechanism for an extension, leaving a vessel owner liable for civil and criminal penalties through no fault of his own,” he said.

The EPA acknowledged the problem and decided that vessels that can’t meet the agency’s permit limits and have received an extension from the Coast Guard “are considered a low enforcement priority,” Shapiro said. Pressed to define his terms, he said, “When we say low priority, we mean very low priority.”

Then Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., asked Shapiro, “Is there something in the laws that prohibits you from having the same monitoring system?” Shapiro promised an answer.

And when LoBiondo asked if the administration supported a single standard, Shapiro said, “The administration has not taken a position on that question.”

James Roussos, vice president of boat operations, LaMonica Fine Food, Millville, N.J., a seafood supplier, summed up the sentiments of many operators when he said, “Environmental regulation by litigation is out of control and could cripple our community.”

Concluding the hearing, LoBiondo promised, “We’ll try to find a way to get you some relief.”

--UPDATE 3/7/14 --

On Thursday the Senate introduced a bill calling for the enactment of a uniform national standard for the regulation of ballast water and other vessel discharges. 

“The significance of this bill, and the strong Senate support behind it, cannot be overstated,” said Allegretti in a statement. “There is a critical need to enact legislation that protects our nation’s waterways while improving the efficiency and effectiveness of marine transportation. This bill accomplishes those objectives.”

AWO specifically called attention to the instrumental leadership of the bill’s lead sponsors, Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who introduced the bill with twenty additional bipartisan cosponsors.

 “Establishing a uniform federal framework for vessel discharge regulation is one of our industry’s top legislative priorities and sound national policy,” said Allegretti. “We look forward to working with the bill’s sponsors to ensure that it can be quickly considered by the full Senate and move one step closer to being enacted into law.”