The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) made available its long-anticipated standards for discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels pursuant to the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (“VIDA”) on October 6, 2020. Signed into law on December 4, 2018 as part of the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018, VIDA established a new framework for the regulation of discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels in an attempt to bring consistency and certainty to the regulation of discharges from U.S.- and foreign-flag vessels.
The first step in implementing VIDA requires EPA to develop federal performance standards for “marine pollution control devices,” which includes any equipment or management practice (or combination thereof) to manage incidental discharges from vessels. After some delays, EPA posted its notice of proposed rulemaking on October 6, available here, to set standards for 20 types of vessel discharges incidental to normal operations. The program implemented under VIDA will replace EPA’s Vessel General Permit and certain U.S. Coast Guard (“USCG”) regulations for ballast water a few years from now, after the USCG finalizes regulations to implement EPA’s standards, including compliance, monitoring, inspections, and enforcement.
VIDA was the culmination of years of discussion, debate, and litigation concerning discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels. Although back in the 1970s EPA initially exempted these discharges from the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permitting program due to the burden of permitting every vessel entering U.S. waters, a federal court ruled in 2006 that EPA must issue permits for vessel discharges. In response, EPA developed the 2008 Vessel General Permit (“VGP”). The 2008 VGP was eventually replaced by the 2013 VGP, which contained some more stringent requirements, such as numeric limits on ballast water discharges, a requirement to use environmentally acceptable lubricants, and new monitoring requirements for ballast water, bilge water, and graywater.
Long-awaited amendments to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (“MARPOL”) entered into force on October 1, 2020, which expressly permit the use of electronic record books for certain MARPOL required logs. Although the United States reserved its decision regarding adoption of the amendments when they were approved by the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) in May 2019, the United States ultimately accepted their adoption in accordance with the tacit acceptance procedure. Nonetheless, it is yet unclear how the amendments will be implemented in the United States or what additional security safeguards the United States may require. Bottom line, this is a significant and welcomed development.
Electronic record books have been the subject of much debate and consideration at the IMO and within the United States for a number of years. During MEPC 74 in May 2019, amendments were approved, revising MARPOL Annexes I, II, V, and VI to allow the use of electronic record books approved by the vessels’ Administration for the Oil Record Book (“ORB”), Cargo Record Book, Garbage Record Book, and Annex VI air pollution prevention recordkeeping requirements. In adopting the amendments, the IMO stated the use of electronic record books “should be encouraged as it may have many benefits for the retention of records by companies, crew, and officers.” These amendments entered into force on October 1, 2020, although a number of flag States believed the previous MARPOL language provided them with the discretion to allow the use of electronic record books and had already approved their use on vessels for some years. Even so, the permissibility of using electronic record books to meet MARPOL requirements is now clear.
The International Maritime Organization (“IMO”), in preparing for the global 0.5 percent fuel oil sulfur limit, recently adopted an amendment to MARPOL Annex VI to support consistent implementation and enforcement of the new requirement. At the same time, the IMO rejected a proposal for an “experience building phase” during the first months of implementation. This put to rest any rumors of a delay in implementation. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard published procedures by which owners may seek authorization to operate engines that do not meet MARPOL Annex VI NOx Tier III requirements for qualified vessels.
The IMO adopted an amendment to support consistent implementation of the forthcoming 0.5 percent limit on sulfur in ships fuel oil on October 26, 2018, during the recent session of its Marine Environment Protection Committee (“MEPC 73”). This amendment, effective on March 1, 2020, prohibits the carriage of non-compliant fuel oil for use on the vessel unless the vessel is outfitted with an exhaust gas cleaning system, often referred to as a scrubber. The amendment does not alter the January 1, 2020 implementation date for the 0.5 percent sulfur limit.
Also related to MARPOL Annex VI, the U.S. Coast Guard published an enforcement Work Instruction formally addressing how the U.S. Coast Guard will enforce the Annex VI nitrogen oxides (“NOx”) Tier III standards within the North American and U.S. Caribbean Sea Emission Control Areas (“ECAs”). SeeExercise of Enforcement Discretion with Regard to MARPOL Annex VI Regulation 126.96.36.199; CVC-WI-014(1) (October 17, 2018). Because engines meeting the NOx Tier III standards were largely unavailable after the Tier III standards took effect in 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard is allowing impacted vessels to instead be certified as meeting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) Clean Air Act Tier 3 requirements pursuant to 40 C.F.R. Part 1042. Once individually recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard, such engines may be used indefinitely, even after NOx Tier III compliant engines become available.