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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

EPA’s Proposed Vessel General Permits: Background and Issues

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

In November 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed two Clean Water Act (CWA) permits to regulate certain types of discharges from vessels into U.S. waters. The proposed permits would replace a single Vessel General Permit (VGP) issued in 2008 that is due to expire in December 2013. As proposed, the permits would apply to approximately 71,000 large domestic and foreign vessels and perhaps as many as 138,000 small vessels. This universe of regulated entities is diverse as well as large, consisting of tankers, freighters, barges, cruise ships and other passenger vessels, and commercial fishing vessels. Their regulated discharges are similarly diverse, including among other pollutants aquatic nuisance species (ANS), nutrients, pathogens, oil and grease, metals, and toxic chemical compounds that can have a broad array of effects on aquatic species and human health, many of which can be harmful.

EPA has proposed two draft permits, one for large vessels to replace the 2008 VGP (draft VGP), and one for smaller vessels that currently are covered by a congressionally enacted temporary moratorium (draft sVGP). Public comments on the draft permits must be submitted by February 21, 2012. EPA expects to take final action by November 2012. By proposing them well in advance of the VGP’s expiration, EPA intends to provide ample time for the regulated community to prepare for the application of new requirements.

The CWA requires that all regulated discharges must meet effluent limitations representing applicable levels of technology-based control. The draft permits largely retain the current permit’s approach of relying on best management practices to control most discharges, because EPA concluded that it is infeasible to develop numeric effluent limits for most controlled discharges. However, the draft VGP for larger vessels includes for the first time numeric ballast water discharge limits, which are consistent with a pending Coast Guard rule and standards in an international convention.

The principal benefits of the permits will be reduced risk of introducing ANS into U.S. waters and enhanced environmental quality resulting from reduced pollutant discharges, but the magnitude of benefits is not calculable, according to EPA. The agency acknowledged significant uncertainty about several assumptions affecting estimated costs of the permits, including the types and extent of discharge control practices currently implemented and the number of vessels expected to implement new practices.

EPA’s proposal raises two key issues. One concerns inclusion of specific numeric ballast water discharge limits in the draft VGP. At issue has been whether EPA would propose more stringent numeric limits, as some environmental groups have favored and a few states have already adopted. A second issue concerns the role of states in regulating vessel discharges.

Congressional interest in this topic has been evident for some time, as reflected in two bills enacted in 2008 to exempt certain vessels from a CWA permit requirement, thus restricting the population of vessels subject to the current VGP. Similar interest is evident in the 112th Congress. A Coast Guard reauthorization bill passed by the House in November 2011 (H.R. 2838) includes provisions to establish a uniform national standard for ballast water discharges, which would supersede EPA and Coast Guard ballast water management requirements, void the VGP, and supersede existing state standards or permits for any discharge incidental to the normal operation of a commercial vessel. Counterpart Senate legislation (S. 1665) has no similar provisions.

Date of Report: January 9, 2012
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R42142
Price: $29.95

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