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Thursday, April 18, 2013

EPA’s Vessel General Permit: 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 vessel discharges 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 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 proposed two permits, one (draft VGP) for large vessels to replace the 2008 VGP, and one for smaller vessels covered by a congressionally enacted temporary moratorium (draft sVGP). Both were proposed well in advance of the VGP’s expiration to provide ample time for the regulated community to prepare for new requirements. On March 28, EPA issued a final version of the VGP for large vessels. It becomes effective December 19, 2013. The permit for smaller vessels is still under review.

The CWA requires that all regulated discharges must meet effluent limitations representing applicable levels of technology-based control. The 2013 VGP 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 new VGP includes for the first time numeric ballast water discharge limits, which are consistent with standards in a March 2012 Coast Guard rule and an international convention.

The principal benefits of the permit 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 permit.

The revised permit raises two key issues. One concerns inclusion of specific numeric ballast water discharge limits in the VGP. At issue had 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. In 2008 Congress enacted two bills to exempt certain vessels from a CWA permit requirement, thus restricting the population of vessels subject to the VGP. In the 112
th Congress, the House passed H.R. 2838, which included provisions to establish a uniform national standard for ballast water discharges that 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. The enacted measure (P.L. 112-213) deleted the ballast water provisions and extended a permit moratorium for certain small vessels. .

Date of Report: April 8, 2013
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R42142
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