Industry Issues

Sewage, Graywater and Other Discharges

Discharges of black and gray water generated and discharged in the course of normal ship operations is regulated internationally through Annex IV of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). Discharges of sewage or "blackwater" are prohibited except for specific conditions stipulated under the Annex. In addition to international standards as established under MARPOL Annex IV, some jurisdictions also regulate sewage discharges. For example, in the United States, specific waters are designated as "no discharge zones" or NDZs. Sewage discharges are prohibited in these areas.

In the United States, sewage, gray water, bilge water, and a variety of other vessel discharges are now regulated through the EPA's Clean Water Act (CWA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Program. For over 30 years, EPA regulations exempted discharges "incidental to the normal operation of a vessel" from the NPDES permitting requirements, which started in 1972. In September 2006, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered EPA to end this regulatory exemption after it was challenged in a lawsuit (Northwest Environmental Advocates et al. v. EPA). Consequently, EPA established a vessel permitting program, called the Vessel General Permit (VGP). EPA's current five-year VGP became effective on February 6, 2009 for all commercial vessels greater than 79 feet in length. Learn more from the EPA about the Vessel General Permit (VGP).

Although the VGP contains federal standards for managing vessel discharges, Section 401 of the CWA authorizes individual states to add additional requirements that, when finalized, become part of the VGP. In many cases these state 401 Certification requirements are vastly different and require vessels to install very costly treatments systems or to hold discharges such as gray water within state waters. The problem with this approach is that ships in coastwise trade or in international commerce must call multiple ports in multiple U.S. states on a single voyage. This means a single ship may be faced with one set of discharge treatment standards in one state and a completely different set, which requires different installed systems and procedures, in another state. The WSC supports the establishment of environmentally protective, enforceable uniform national ship discharge standards that are not subject to individual state requirements. Read the Council's August 2007 comments to EPA on the development of NPDES permits for vessels.

Since the current VGP will expire in December 2013, the EPA invited stakeholders in December 2010 to provide input to the agency regarding the terms of the next VGP.  Read the Council's December 2010 comments to EPA on the next VGP.

In December 2011, EPA published the draft of the next VGP, which contains effluent limits and best management practices for 27 discharge categories, including adoption of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) ballast water discharge standard.   Read the Council's February 2012 comments to EPA on the draft of the next VGP.  

In late 2012, EPA plans to finalize the terms of the next VGP, which will then become effective on December 19, 2013.  Learn more about ballast water.

Fuel Spill Prevention & Response

Improved ship design will protect against fuel spills. A new requirement has come into effect that will protect vessels' fuel tanks with a double hull. New regulation 12A, an important amendment to Annex I of the International Maritime Organization's Maritime Pollution Convention (MARPOL) on oil fuel tank protection, was adopted by the IMO's Marine Environmental Protection Committee on 24 March 2006, and came into force on August 1, 2007. For any ship with a building contract that is entered into on or after August 1, 2007 and that has an aggregate oil fuel capacity of 600 cubic meters or more, the oil fuel tanks will be required to be located inside the double hull, thus helping prevent spillages of oil fuel in case of collision or grounding.