A Measure of Certainty

measure of certainty

By Paul Benecki 04-01-2017 07:10:08

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2017 edition.)

From January/February 2017 Edition

The U.S. Coast Guard has finally issued its first type-approvals for ballast water treatment systems: Time for the industry to step up.

Over 85 percent of all marine ecosystems are infested with invasive species, and as world trade grows there are more and more opportunities for marine life to travel. Some harbors report an astonishing rate of colonization: San Francisco Bay is already home to 250 invasive species, and it adds a few more every year.

The rapid growth of the most aggressive invasives can severely damage regional ecosystems and economies. The best-known example, the tiny quagga mussel, arrived in the Great Lakes from Ukraine in the 1980s and quickly clogged industrial water intakes from Lake Michigan to the St. Lawrence Seaway. The comb jellyfish, a native of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, arrived in the Black Sea at around the same time. It consumed fish eggs, larvae and plankton with vigor, decimating fisheries.

Eradication of a well-established invasive is usually impractical, and regulatory efforts focus instead on controlling their spread. Ballast water is one of the primary sources: Thousands of species may be taken on board when a ship ballasts down. After a voyage, the vessel discharges all the life that survived. This is not the only way that invasives travel – fouled hulls are also a serious problem – but ballast water can be treated on board with proven technology, making it a natural starting point for regulatory action.

Regulatory Road Map

In 1990 the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) began negotiations on a ballast water treatment convention and adopted a final version in 2004. Last year the list of signatory nations passed the threshold for ratification, and the convention will enter into force this September. After a phase-in period, vessels in international trade will be required to meet strict ballast water discharge standards.

There are novel ways to comply, like discharging to an external treatment facility or ballasting/deballasting in only one location, but the vast majority of merchant ships will have to install a type-approved ballast water treatment system. The compliance deadline is tied to the ship’s first International Oil Pollution Prevention (IOPP) renewal survey after the convention’s entry into force. As the IOPP is renewed at each five-year drydocking, this will give some vessels until 2022 to meet the standard.

Shipowners have nearly 70 ballast water treatment systems and a wide variety of sterilization technologies to choose from. Most designs rely on a self-cleaning filter to remove larger organisms, followed by some form of ultraviolet, physical or chemical treatment. Most of the underlying technologies have been in use in other industries for decades. UV light and electrochlorination may be the most common options: One leading class society reports that these two technologies are used in 75 percent of the installations it inspects. Ultraviolet systems lead the market for ballast water treatment on smaller vessels like OSVs, where their simplicity and compact size provide an advantage.

When choosing a method of treatment, owners will have to consider the footprint of the equipment package, its power consumption, the vessel’s trading areas and the particular requirements of each ship’s ballast system. Systems that treat water with peracetic acid or chlorine dioxide use an onboard supply of special chemicals, which must be restocked periodically by the manufacturer’s service network. Ultraviolet systems may have difficulty with water containing high levels of tannins and suspended organic matter. Electrochlorination systems that are designed to treat the main stream of the ballast line’s flow may have difficulty with low-salinity water. (Slip stream electrochlorination systems, like De Nora’s BALPURE®, are not affected by this problem.) And most technologies act on the ballast a second time during deballasting, which may pose an installation challenge for vessels with certain discharge arrangements, like bulkers with gravity-draining topside tanks. Ships like these may opt for equipment that treats ballast in a single pass, like the Ecochlor® system, which only runs during intake.

Despite the complexity of treating all kinds of water on all kinds of ships, manufacturers have worked hard to make their systems as straightforward and easy-to-use as possible. The best systems provide automated or semi-automated adjustments based on local water conditions, and many can be set up to notify shoreside management if an operation falls outside allowable parameters. Crew training is often as simple as an instructional video or online tutorial.

U.S. Approval

Treatment systems for use in American waters must be tested to the U.S. Coast Guard’s standards, which go beyond the first gen eration of IMO testing requirements. The Coast Guard’s testing process has been controversial and costly, but in December the agency issued its first three type-approvals, giving the market a long-awaited measure of certainty. More approvals are expected soon, and some vendors say that buying now is the best way to lock in a good price.

“We’ve had a number of our long-term customers come to us and say, ‘It’s time to sign a contract to cover our fleet.’ They know we’re going to get type-approval eventually, and they want to be sure they have the ability to install our system even if demand surges later on,” says Mark Riggio, Senior Market Manager for U.S.-based manufacturer Hyde Marine.

At current price levels, treatment systems for most merchant ships run between $700,000 and $2 million, depending on the vessel, system type and configuration. Installation costs can add up to $200,000 more. Riggio strongly recommends investing early and hiring a specialist to retrofit the system: “Unlike a shipyard, a specialized contractor can draw on years of experience, and this means the system gets installed properly and quickly. They make sure it works and they don’t make mistakes.”

Riggio endorses Goltens, an engineering and repair firm that has installed more than 200 ballast water treatment systems from a variety of manufacturers. Goltens’ technicians use a 3D laser scanner to create a virtual model of each ship’s machinery spaces, allowing the firm’s engineers to design the installation around any existing equipment. Based on these detailed plans, Goltens can prefabricate the required pipe sections and forward them to the vessel’s next port of call, where its teams can complete the installation at the pier.

“Our teams can finish simple installations without taking the ship out of service, with no downtime and no interference from the other work that might be scheduled during a drydocking period,” says Chief Operating Officer Roy Strand. For owners of sister ships, Goltens can take one installation plan and adapt it to the differences of each additional ship, saving the design costs of starting from scratch on every vessel.

Getting Onboard

The industry is gradually adapting to the new treatment requirements, but the rate of uptake varies by sector. Many cruise operators are enthusiastic “early movers,” like Princess Cruises: In 2000, well before the IMO’s treatment standards had been established, Hyde Marine and Optimarin installed the world’s first commercial ballast water treatment system on the Regal Princess, and the line has retrofitted all of its vessels over the intervening years.

Norwegian’s Breakaway Class ships and Carnival’s latest ECO-Notation vessel, the Carnival Vista, were all built with ballast water treatment systems. Royal Caribbean has installed dozens of Hyde Marine’s ballast water systems and says the design of its new Oasis Class ships allows these ultra-large vessels to carry out loading and bunkering operations without discharging ballast at all.

In the liner sector, MSC and CMA CGM have committed tens of millions of dollars to ballast water treatment, well in advance of the regulatory deadline.

While some operators will act early, many others may try to defer the cost of installation until market conditions improve. Multiple sources say owners are asking their flag registries to decouple the IOPP renewal from the five-year drydocking schedule in an attempt to push back the installation timeline. Under this interpretation of the rules, any ship could operate without ballast water treatment until 2022, giving the owner up to five more years to retrofit or decommission the vessel. This may be an especially attractive option for the owners of ships with large ballast requirements, which will need more complex and costly treatment systems.

Leading the Way

The compliance costs for ballast water treatment are not trivial. Shipowners will spend an estimated $30-70 billion on treatment systems over the coming decade, an amount representing as much as 10 percent of the value of the world’s fleet. However, this investment may pay off in the long term and is an essential first step in slowing the spread of invasive species. It may even save lives by preventing the transfer of waterborne disease.

And while some may view ballast water treatment as a cost center, it is also an opportunity for shipowners to show leadership on the environmental front. With growing certainty on regulations and compliance, great equipment options and guidance from experienced specialists, shipowners have the tools they need to lead the way.


Paul Benecki, Maritime Executive Staff Writer, is based in Portland, Oregon.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.