Commercial Ship Discharges Now Need Clean Water Permit

Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 6:18 PM EDT
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Commercial Ship Discharges Now Need Clean Water Permit

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WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2008 (ENS) - A new general permit will reduce releases of 26 types of discharges from vessels operating in U.S. waters, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Beginning today, some 61,000 domestically flagged commercial vessels and 8,000 foreign flagged vessels will need to comply with the discharge permit.

As a result of a 2006 court ruling, vessel owners and operators who have previously been exempt from Clean Water Act requirements for the last 35 years will now require a permit.

"EPA met the deadline and delivered a protective and practical permit to protect the nation's waterways from ship-borne pollution and to avoid an environmental and economic shipwreck," said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin Grumbles.

Without this permit, all commercial shipping within U.S. waters could come to a halt because of liability risks, he said.

On March 30, 2005, the federal district court in Northern California, in a case brought by environmental groups, ruled that the EPA regulation excluding discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel from NPDES permitting exceeded the agency’s authority under the Clean Water Act.

On September 18, 2006, the court issued an order revoking this regulation as of September 30, 2008.

The EPA appealed the district court's decision, and on July 23, 2008, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, leaving the September 30, 2008 vacatur date in effect.

In response to this court order, the EPA developed two proposed permits to regulate discharges from vessels. The district court later extended the date of vacatur to December 19, 2008.

The permit covers non-recreational vessels 79 feet in length or longer, such as cruise ships or oil and cargo tankers, but it excludes fishing vessels of any length, unless they discharge ballast water.

The new permit incorporates the U.S. Coast Guard's mandatory ballast water management and exchange standards, and provides what Grumbles calls "technology-based and water-quality-based effluent limits" for other types of discharges, including deck runoff from rain or cleaning, ballast water used to stabilize ships and gray water from showers, sinks and laundry machines.

But environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth say the new permit allows cruise ships to dump unlimited quantities of untreated graywater, which they call "a harmful pollutant" into the ocean one nautical mile from U.S. shores, if they are travelling at speeds above six knots.

"The Bush EPA is ignoring its own scientific findings by issuing this permit, which will allow harmful pollution near U.S. shores," said Marcie Keever, clean vessels campaign director at Friends of the Earth. "The Environmental Protection Agency knows that pollution from cruise ships and other vessels is out of control and getting worse. This permit will not protect the health of our oceans or the people who use them.

The permit requires cruise ships to monitor their graywater discharges once every three months. Keever says that requirement leaves them free to ignore malfunctioning systems the other 361 days of the year.

Cruise ship graywater contains contaminants such as oil and grease, metals, pesticides, viruses, fecal coliform bacteria from human sewage, medical and dental waste, detergents, and cleaners.

A large cruise ship on a one week voyage can generate one million gallons of graywater.

Keever points out that the EPA finds in an assessment report to be finalized this month that untreated graywater from cruise ships is above safe levels.

"Despite this finding, the permit issued today continues to allow cruise ships to discharge such graywater. Significantly, the EPA has also found that it would cost cruise ships only $7.09 per passenger to treat graywater using the best water treatment technology, and yet the permit fails to require treatment of polluted discharges beyond one nautical mile," she said.

The new permit does not apply to recreation vessels. Earlier this year, Congress responded to the court ruling in part by enacting a law to exempt recreational vessels from the permitting requirement and requiring further analysis and action by the EPA and the Coast Guard.

{Photo: The Queen Elizabeth 2, a cruise ship of the Cunard Line (Photo courtesy Cunard Line)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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