Ballast Water: U.S. Federal Management


Ballast Water Convention Home International
U.S. Federal
Frequently Asked Questions
Regulatory History USCG Final Rule U.S. EPA Vessel General Permit Additional Information: Ballast Water Management Additional Information: Aquatic Nuisance Species


Invasive quagga mussels cover shipwreck nameboard

Photo 83: Invasive quagga mussels cover shipwreck nameboard.
(Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA).

Although the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments, 2004 (Ballast Water Management Convention) has not yet entered into force, the United States regulates ballast water management domestically through the Coast Guard (USCG) under the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990, as amended by the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 (NISA) (16 U.S.C. §4711) and through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Vessel General Permit program, issued under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act(33 U.S.C.§1342).

NISA requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to manage the discharge of aquatic nuisance species in ship ballast water into U.S. waters. The Secretary has delegated authority to the USCG to establish and enforce regulations to prevent the introduction and spread of aquatic nuisance species through ballast water. NISA authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, to approve the use of certain alternative ballast water management methods if she determines that those alternative methods are at least as effective as mid-ocean ballast water exchange in preventing and controlling infestations of aquatic nuisance species(16 U.S.C. §4711(b)(2)(iii)).

Regulatory History

In 2004, USCG issued final mandatory ballast water management regulations that required any vessel with ballast water entering U.S. waters from outside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone to either conduct mid-ocean ballast water exchange, retain the vessel’s ballast water onboard, or utilize an alternative control method approved by the USCG (69 Fed. Reg. 44952) (July 28, 2004) (final rule)). Based on a number of studies, USCG determined that mid-ocean ballast water exchange is only partially effective and concluded that the establishment of a post-treatment discharge standard for the concentration of living organisms permitted in ballast water will further NISA’s intent and ensure, to the maximum extent practicable, that aquatic nuisance species are not discharged into the waters of the U.S. As a result, the USCG published a notice of proposed rulemaking in 2009 entitled "Standards for Living Organisms in Ships’ Ballast Water Discharged in U.S. Waters," which was finalized in 2012. (Final Rule, 77 Fed. Reg. 17254).

USCG Final Rule

To target the introduction and spread of aquatic nuisance species, USCG issued a final rule for standards for living organisms in ships’ ballast water discharged into waters of the United States, effective on June 21, 2012 (77 Fed. Reg. 17254) . The Final Rule moves forward with a phase-one numeric standard consistent with the discharge standard adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in the Ballast Water Management Convention and which is based on the number of living organisms contained in discharged ballast water. Based on an evaluation conducted by EPA’s Science Advisory Board in late 2011, the Final Rule establishes the most stringent requirements that ballast water management systems can effectively and reliably implement and that the USCG can enforce at this time. In its final rule, the USCG states its intention to establish a more stringent phase-two discharge standard once additional research and technological advances support such standard and provides the review process for promulgating a stricter standard in 33 C.F.R. 151.2030.

The final rule applies to two groups of vessels that intend to discharge ballast water into waters of the United States: 1) vessels currently required to conduct ballast water exchange, and 2) seagoing vessels that do not operate in waters beyond the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, take on and discharge ballast water in more than one Captain of the Port (COTP) Zone, and are greater than 1,600 gross register tons. The USCG intends to expand the applicability of the discharge standard to all vessels not legislatively exempted that operate in U.S. waters and expects this expansion to be part of the phase-two standard. Exemptions to the final rule include, inter alia, any vessel of the U.S. Armed Forces subject to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Section 312; any warship, naval auxiliary, or other vessel owned or operated by a foreign state and used, for the time being, only on government non-commercial service; and foreign vessels in innocent passage.

The final rule requires covered vessels to employ a ballast water management method set forth in the rule, including installation of a ballast water management system that complies with the rule’s concentration-based standard in accordance with a strict implementation schedule beginning in 2013. New vessels constructed on or after December 1, 2013, are required to comply with the ballast water discharge standard upon delivery. Existing vessels constructed before December 1, 2013, with a ballast water capacity of either less than 1,500 m3 or greater than 5,000 m3, must comply with the discharge standard by their first scheduled drydocking after January 1, 2016. Existing vessels with a ballast water capacity between 1,500-5,000 m3 must be in compliance by their first scheduled drydocking after January 1, 2014.

U.S. EPA Vessel General Permit

Ballast tank on transoceanic carrier

Photo 84: Ballast tank on transoceanic carrier.
NOAA, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

In 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the EPA to withdraw a longstanding EPA rule that exempted ballast water and other discharges incidental to the normal operations of vessels from the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). In December 2009, EPA issued a final NPDES vessel general permit to regulate 26 discharges incidental to the normal operations of commercial ships at least 79 feet in length, and to regulate ballast water discharges from all non-recreational, non-military vessels, including commercial fishing vessels. The vessel general permit is written to include existing USCG management and ballast water exchange requirements, including the exchange of ballast water at least 50 nautical miles or more from the coast, and saltwater flushing of ballast tanks for all vessels entering U.S. waters from outside of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.

On November 30, 2011, EPA issued a draft vessel general permit,which, if finalized, will replace the current 2008 vessel general permit after it expires on December 19, 2013. The draft vessel general permit includes a numeric concentration-based effluent limit for ballast water discharges that is consistent with the concentration-based discharge standard set forth in the Ballast Water Management Convention.

Additional Information on United States Ballast Water Management

Additional Information on Aquatic Nuisance Species in Marine Sanctuaries