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Forward planning can help shipowners navigate ballast water issues on operational compliance and regulation

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We are currently at a critical stage for ballast water management regulations. The focus for many shipowners is now shifting beyond certification to operational compliance, while we are still yet to reach the expected peak of retrofits.

Given the significant financial investment that Ballast Water Management System (BWMS) installation represents, shipowners expect easy availability and easy compliance yet must deal with unexpected issues and uncertainty.

It is expected that the MEPC will approve amendments to the IMO’s Ballast Water Management Convention (BWMC) on commissioning testing in the coming months. This should provide shipowners with confidence that their system works upon delivery against the backdrop of a worryingly high number of systems that do not meet the D-2 standard on commissioning, calculated to be as high as 21% by SGS. This vital assurance is necessary during the experience building process, however it does nothing to guarantee operational compliance after commissioning.

Many operational failures could go undetected on most BWMS while shipowners have reported high numbers of operational problems with their systems. Should a crew believe that they are operating and monitoring a BWMS correctly, failures in training, processes or system faults may simply not be spotted. Indeed, a shipowner and crew may believe that they have acted responsibly and done all they can to ensure compliance right up until Port State Control levies a substantial fine. This is a high level of risk and shipowners are understandably concerned.

This puts shipowners in a confusing and frustrating position, especially while regulatory uncertainty persists. There has been a heated debate on ballast water compliance testing, on the process and form it may take as well as the types and sizes of samples required. The BWMC makes the IMO responsible for creating these standards, yet we are still left to debate while shipowners are left in the dark.

Different possible testing processes and standards represent different risks and burdens for shipowners, which shipowners may wish to mitigate differently. It is likely that the IMO will insist on indicative testing at the first instance, reducing the cost and burden of taking a large ballast water sample for all ships. As article 12 of the BWMC forbids ‘undue’ delay to ships under the guise of compliance testing, it is likely regulators will take this approach to ensure the minimum possible delay for most ships.

However, indicative tests cannot measure for all proscribed microbes while they have a margin of error too wide to be conclusive on their own. While we are left to assume that regulators will decide on this process and guess at what margins may trigger a full sample, shipowners are left with uncertainty over the risks they face. Lawyers are hopelessly divided on the definition of ‘undue’ under article 12 of the Convention, and owners do not yet know if they could be delayed for 30 minutes or 3 days for additional sampling without receiving compensation for their losses. All shipowners can do today to mitigate these risks is install a system that reliably treats ballast water to a high standard.

It is imperative that the IMO maintains recent momentum on ballast water regulations and creates these standards as quickly as possible. These unanswered questions have a real impact, and the IMO’s current focus on impending biofouling regulations must not be allowed to side-track or delay this clarification.

These issues have been complicated further by the Covid-19 pandemic, which is likely to exaggerate the peak in BWMS retrofits. With capacity at shipyards down and flag authorities granting temporary extensions to ship surveys, demand for retrofits is expected to grow beyond capacity in the coming years causing significant bottlenecks.

This scarcity extends to spare parts and maintenance. Residual production and logistics pressure caused by the crisis coupled with this excess demand poses a risk for ships that have already gone through a BWMS retrofit. Shipowners may be left exposed by this scarcity, and face long lay ups or inflated prices in trying to get spare parts and maintenance. This is while those owners who delay their retrofits today risk being stuck in a bottleneck for an extended period when deadlines do approach, regardless of any extensions granted by authorities.

Many of these risks can be minimised by BWMS manufacturers, and by selecting high quality, reliable systems. At De Nora, our BALPURE system goes beyond IMO standards for water treatment. Furthermore, with crew training arranged for every system and data relayed to and analysed by onshore experts to offer insight and support, it delivers a greater level of confidence. While regulatory and operational issues persist across the industry, providing this support is any supplier’s duty.

However, mitigating these risks cannot be done by BWMS suppliers alone. Comprehensive planning is a vital tool for shipowners, on maintaining knowledge as well as on supply chains in the current climate. Maintaining a stock of spare parts, access to maintenance and not being caught in a retrofit bottleneck is a difficult administrative challenge that shipowners must prepare for today. Without this preparation, shipowners can easily be hit by large bills and unexpected lay ups in the medium term.

As we enter the next stage of ballast water regulation implementation the industry is still dealing with uncertainty and hidden risks. Navigating these troubled waters will require shipowners to take a cautious approach to BWMS system choice, supply chains, and installation dates. Shipowners who plan for these challenges today will be in the best position to navigate them going forwards.

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