Shape Up or Ship Out: E.P.A. Forced to Reevaluate Their General Ballast Water Regulation Permit

John Biglow, MJLST Staffer

In the recently decided Natural Resources Defense Council v. U.S. E.P.A., — F.3d — (2d Cir. Oct. 5, 2015), the Second Circuit granted the petitioners’ motion, in part, for a review of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2013 Vessel General Permit (VGP) regulating the discharge of ballast water from ships. The petitioners, four environmental conservation organizations, argued successfully that the EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously in a number of ways when it set the technology based effluent limits (TBELs) and water quality-based effluent limits (WQBELs) which must be complied with under its VGP. In so deciding, the Second Circuit has remanded the matter to the EPA for proceedings consistent with their opinion, and has kept the 2013 VGP in place until the EPA issues a new VGP.

The EPA has the authority to regulate ballast discharge under §402(a) of the Clean Water Act (CWA). When freighter ships take on or unload cargo, they adjust for changes in weight by taking on or discharging ballast water. As the court stated, this amount “can range from hundreds of gallons to as much as 25 million gallons.” The regulation of ballast discharge is an important aspect of environmental conservation due to its role as a conduit for the spread of invasive species and pollutants. When a ship takes on ballast water in a polluted or infested area, it is possible for these organisms and pollutants to get sucked up with the water, surviving in the ballast tanks before being discharged in some distinct body of water. One study referenced by the court estimated the damage from invasive species to be upwards of $137 billion annually, making the prevention of their spread both a top environmental and economic priority.

The first set of arguments made by the petitioners centered on whether the TBELs set by the EPA were arbitrary and capricious. The petitioners first argued that in setting the TBEL standard to mirror the standard adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 2004 (the IMO standard), the EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The Court agreed, primarily because a higher standard was attainable. The CWA requires the EPA to apply the “best available technology economically achievable” (BAT) when setting their TBELs. In its investigation of the available technology, the EPA employed the Science Advisory Board (SAB) to issue a report on the different available systems. According to their report, there were a number of ballast-water treatment systems that would be able to achieve standards 10 to 100 times greater than the IMO in the near future. By ignoring this potential and instead setting the standard at the IMO, the court found that the EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously.

Next, the petitioners argued that the EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it limited the SAB’s investigation of ballast treatment systems to shipboard treatment; ignoring onshore treatment options. The court agreed, refusing arguments from the EPA that these systems were not considered because the facilities needed to implement them were not yet in existence. The court reasoned that the time and expense of creating onshore treatment infrastructure was similar to that required for shipboard treatment, and that it was arbitrary and capricious to ignore the possibility. In remanding this issue back to the EPA, the agency will need to fully consider onshore treatment options before adopting or dismissing them in their new VGP.

The petitioners further argued that the EPA was arbitrary and capricious in exempting ships built before 2009 that only sail the great lakes water system (pre-2009 Lakers). The court agreed, reasoning that there was no true distinction between pre- and post-2009 Lakers. The court further stated that exempting ships because they did not currently have the technological capacity to adopt the technology necessary to meet the VGP requirements conflicted with the CWA’s BAT requirement, which seeks to force technology to keep up with contemporary environmental demands.

The petitioners next argued that several facets of the WQBELs were arbitrary and capricious. The WQBELs were designed as a safeguard to be utilized when the TBELs alone are insufficient to meet and maintain water quality standards. In its 2013 VGP, the EPA refused to set numerical values for its WQBELs, instead stating simply that “Your discharge must be controlled as necessary to meet applicable water quality standards in the receiving water body or another water body impacted by your discharges.” The court agreed that setting a narrative WQBEL was arbitrary and capricious, noting that it fails to give ship owners clear guidance as to whether or not they are in compliance with the WQBELs.

The petitioners also argued that the monitoring requirements of the WQBELs was arbitrary and capricious. The 2013 VGP required only that ship owners monitor the expected time, place, and volume of their ballast discharges. The court agreed, reasoning that the EPA could consider requiring ship owners to monitor the actual statistics on their ballast discharges, rather than the expected ones.

It is a critical victory for environmentalists that the Second Circuit is requiring the EPA to revisit what was an incomplete and insufficient 2013 VGP; however, it is critical that the EPA get it right the second time around. The economic and environmental impact of ballast discharges is significant and due to the cost and time requirements involved in creating the infrastructure necessary to meet the VGP system requirements, we are likely to be stuck with whatever the EPA sets as the BAT for a very long time.

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