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Court Ordered Discharge Permits Could Affect Millions of Vessels


July 21, 2007

Just coming to the forefront in Alaska news this week is a federal court decision last September that the Clean Water Act applies to most vessels operating in U.S. waters. This decision has the potential to change the rules on discharges from millions of recreational boats, fishing vessels, freight and tank barges.

Discharges may include ballast water, bilge water, deck runoff and gray water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is appealing the ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in the case brought by environmental groups. But meanwhile, the EPA is preparing to impose a vessel discharge permit program in case its appeal is rejected.

"While EPA's position is that an exemption from Clean Water Act permitting is proper, we also share concerns about the significant impacts of aquatic invasive species," said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin Grumbles in June.

Ballast water taken onboard to balance ships and then discharged in U.S. waters can bring non-native species into U.S. aquatic ecosystems. If these invasive species become established, they can adversely impact the economy or the environment, or cause harm to human health.

Led by Northwest Environmental Advocates based in Portland, Oregon, the environmentalists started in 1999 with a petition to the EPA asking that certain discharges from vessels, including ballast water, not be excluded from the requirement to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, NPDES, permit under the Clean Water Act.

The EPA denied the petition in 2003, saying that "actions by the federal government under other statutes specific to ballast water were likely to be more effective and efficient in addressing the concerns raised in the petition than reliance on NPDES permits."

The environmental groups sued, and in March 2005 the court ruled that the EPA regulation excluding discharges exceeded the agency's authority under the Clean Water Act.

On September 18, 2006, the Court revoked the exclusions, but gave the EPA two years to develop a permit program. That progam is due on September 30, 2008.

The EPA says 143,000 commercial vessels and more than 13 million state registered recreational boats as well as more than 25 different types of vessel discharges could be affected.

Since June 21, 2007, the EPA has been seeking public comments and data to help the agency develop a permitting framework that recognizes various vessel characteristics and types of discharges.

The agency needs information about vessel identification and operations, owner notification, discharge impacts, pollution control equipment and practices, and commercial and recreational vessel traffic patterns.

Comments and data are due within 45 days of publication of the notice in the Federal Register which was June 21, 2007.


On the Web:

Documents related to the rulemaking petition, the court ruling and comments:



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