Pollution Solutions

Industry Grapples With New IMO Regulations

Cruise Ship Docked

By Tom Peters 2015-03-19 11:56:00

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2015 edition.)

***From Jan-Feb 2015 Edition of The Maritime Executive magazine***

Stringent standards for wastewater discharge pose a challenge for Baltic operators.

The planned implementation of new sewage treatment regulations applicable to passenger ships (12 passengers or more) sailing in the Baltic Sea is causing a dilemma within the cruise industry. The changes have been in the works for a number of years.

“In July 2011, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) at its sixty-second session adopted the most recent amendment to MARPOL Annex IV by resolution MEPC 200 (62), which entered into force on 1 January 2013,” Natasha Brown, IMO Media and Communications Officer, stated in an email. The amendment introduces the Baltic Sea as a special area under Annex IV and adds new discharge requirements. Discharging sewage from passenger ships within a special area is generally prohibited under the new regulations unless the ship has in operation a properly approved sewage treatment plant.

The new regulations were to have been implemented on January 1, 2013 “only upon receipt of sufficient notifications on the existence of adequate reception facilities from parties to MARPOL Annex IV,” Brown added. In other words, implementation depended upon the availability of new technology to meet the new standards for both ships and reception facilities at the various ports around the Baltic Sea.

A Growing Eutrophication Problem

The Baltic was granted the special status because it has a serious eutrophication problem. Eutrophication is an excessive richness of nutrients often caused by runoff from industrial and agricultural pollutants on surrounding land. The excessive nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus in the case of the Baltic, cause dense growth in plant life such as nuisance algae blooms, which choke off supplies of oxygen to animal marine life. Ships’ sewage has also been identified as a contributor to nitrogen and phosphorus in oceans.

The new IMO standards, which call for a 70 percent reduction in nitrogen and an 80 percent reduction in phosphorus, were scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2016 for new passenger ships and on January 1, 2018 for existing passenger ships. The new standards also apply to shore-based facilities that receive ships’ sewage.

Unfortunately, the development of waste treatment technology to meet the new standards has not progressed as quickly as was anticipated, and the implementation dates have been pushed back. In an October 2014 report from MEPC, the committee said that “given the lack of available information on reception facilities, it was clear that the earliest effective date for the Baltic Sea special area, i.e., 1 January 2016, will not be met,” and invited its member governments to provide updated information when available.

Searching for Solutions

The cruise industry, meanwhile, is trying to deal with the issue. Last year 40 cruise lines and 88 ships operated in the Baltic, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Bud Darr, CLIA’s Senior Vice-President for Technical and Regulatory Affairs, said the industry faces a dilemma.

“The situation in the Baltic is there aren’t adequate reception facilities to meet the needs for complete discharge ashore from cruise ships in the ports where it would be required,” he stated. “There is no type-approved equipment to this new standard that we are aware of and that is available for installation. So if the special area were to come into force today, we would find ourselves in a very difficult dilemma. This is exactly the dilemma which we foresaw and repeatedly tried to discuss with the proponents and supporters of this scheme as we were looking for a way to make it work.” Ironically, he added that ships’ sewage contributes less than one percent of the eutrophication problem in the Baltic.

There are technologies in various stages of development and testing onboard cruise ships at the moment, but whether or not they will be type-approved in sufficient availability to be a viable option for either new ships in 2016 or existing ships in 2018 remains an open question.

Mark Beavis, Managing Director of ACO Marine, a subsidiary of the German-based ACO Group, says his company has developed and is now testing new technology that will treat ships’ sewage to meet the new standards: “We do have the solution for the marine requirement and it could also be used on land, but it might not be a cost-effective solution compared to other land technologies. Making units small enough for ships leads to increased complexity and cost, including the use of higher specification materials due to the marine environment.” He said the certification process for the new technology is underway and is expected to be completed in March.

ACO’s answer is a new version of its Maripur NF sewage treatment system called ACO Bio Sword. Beavis said during a product launch of the patented new technology in Hamburg last September that “Currently there are only a limited number of ship wastewater treatment plant technologies on the market that meet the new requirements. This is largely due to the fact that systems that have hitherto relied on dilution as part of the treatment process will have difficulty in meeting the new testing and sampling standards of the resolution. Lots of technologies use dilution, but dilution is not a solution to pollution. It is not treating it; it is reshaping it. We can treat it and remove the pollutants.”

Cost Versus Benefits

Everyone recognizes the need to find a solution. But what further complicates the matter for the cruise industry is that this is a problem specific to the Baltic region and begs the question of the cost of wastewater treatment upgrades versus the benefits. “It is a very tall order for a shipowner to make a very large capital investment in uncertain technology that really is only, at present, configured to comply with prospective requirements for a single body of water,” said CLIA’s Darr. “The cruise industry is global and operates around the world.”

Rich Pruitt, Vice President for Maritime Safety and Environmental Stewardship for Royal Caribbean Cruises, which has seven ships scheduled for the Baltic in 2015, said its vessel Quantum of the Seas was delivered in 2014 with a sewage treatment system designed to meet the new Baltic standards, but it has not yet been proven.

From a business standpoint, Pruitt has issues with the new standards: “Even if a ship is assigned there year after year, it would only be for five months since that is the length of the Baltic cruise season. So here we are starting out with a system that really only needs to be utilized for five months.” RCL ships are in and out of the Baltic on a regular basis, so Pruitt questions whether it would be logical to ask investors to approve the expenditure of a large amount of money to convert a system only used for a few months of the year.

From RCL’s perspective, “The reality is we would rely on land-based facilities to pump it off,” he said. Noting the lack of land-based sewage reception facilities available, Pruitt added, “Industry has worked with Helsinki Commission countries and found that probably one or two ports, on a good day, can serve some of the ships,” citing only five ports that can take anything. He believes there are over 30 ports of call in the area and wonders if many of the smaller ones would be willing – or even able – to install expensive land-based reception facilities.

A Unique Problem

Bud Darr said that at present “It is a unique water quality problem that has its own characteristics. It isn’t quite the same as other water quality problems that might exist in any number of bodies of water around the world, so it may not ultimately be a one-size-fits-all solution. This is not a global requirement but rather a requirement to address a specific problem in the Baltic region.”

Asked if cruise lines would exclude the Baltic from itineraries if appropriate technologies are not found, he added, “If reception facilities remain inadequate and technical solutions are not available, this will substantially affect cruise line itinerary decisions and may very likely lead to significant consequences for the Baltic region and its ports.” – MarEx  

Tom Peters writes from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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