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Please note: This summary is provided to help you understand the regulations. Consult the references provided for links to the full text of the regulations.

Ballast WaterBallast Water and Invasive Species

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In U.S. Waters, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Coast Guard share responsibility for implementing regulations covering ballast water discharges. EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) vessels program regulates ballast water and other incidental discharges from the normal operation of vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard has issued guidelines and rules under the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990, as amended by the National Invasive Species Act of 1996.

Prior to 2012,these guidelines were voluntary for most areas. (They had previously been mandatory only for vessels entering certain designated areas, including the Great Lakes and the Hudson River north of the George Washington Bridge.)

Who is covered by the regulations?

Regulations administered by the EPA
The centerpiece of the EPA's NPDES vessels program is the Vessel General Permit, also known as the VGP. In general, vessels that are 79 feet or greater in length (except for military vessels, and recreational vessels as defined in the Clean Water Act) are required to follow the provisions of the VGP. discharges incidental to the normal operation of the vessel. In the case of ballast water, the discharge provisions of the VGP also apply to any non-recreational vessel of less than 79 feet, and to any commercial fishing vessel of any size, that discharges ballast water.

The EPA issued the 2013 VGP on April 12, 2013, with an effective period of December 19, 2013, to December 18, 2018 (i.e., five years). On December 4, 2018, the President signed into law the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA). VIDA requires EPA to develop new national standards of performance for commercial vessel incidental discharges and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to develop corresponding implementing regulations. The VIDA legislation also extended the 2013 VGP's provisions, leaving them in effect until new regulations are final and enforceable.

Vessels operating in certain areas may be required to follow additional state and territorial requirements. These additional requirements are listed in section 6 of the VGP. See the current VGP for details.

Overall, the VGP program applies to more than 61,000 commercial vessels in the U.S. And to more than 8,000 foreign vessels operating in the navigable waters of the United States. Failure to have NPDES permit coverage may result in severe civil and criminal penalties.

Regulations administered by the Coast Guard 
The U.S. Coast Guard issued guidelines are voluntary for all vessels that carry ballast water into the waters of the United States after operating beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) (generally 200 miles off-shore); but are mandatory for vessels entering the Great Lakes and the Hudson River north of the George Washington Bridge.

What is the purpose of the regulations?

Ships need to take on and discharge ballast water as part of their normal operations. But ballast water can also move living organisms long distances, and release them into new habitats. These newcomers can cause major problems, disrupting ecosystems and sometimes creating significant impacts for humans.


Regulations administered by the EPA 

EPA's NPDES vessels program regulates incidental discharges from the normal operation of vessels using the Vessel General Permit or VGP. These discharges include, but are not limited to, ballast water, bilgewater, graywater (e.g., water from sinks, showers), and deck runoff/washdown.

The Vessel General Permit requires that vessel owners and operators meet certain requirements, including seeking coverage for most vessels, assuring their discharges meet effluent limits and related requirements, corrective action process for fixing permit violations, and requirements for inspections, monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting.

Ballast discharges are subject to the rules found in section 2.2.3 of the VGP. Readers are urged to download the VGP before taking any action. The following is a brief summary of the VGP rules.

Vessels subject to the VGP must follow all U.S. Coast Guard's mandatory ballast water management and exchange standards. Any vessel engaged in Pacific nearshore voyages that carries ballast water that was taken on in areas less than 50 nautical miles from shore must conduct ballast water exchange. All vessels coming from outside the U.S. EEZ and engaged in pacific nearshore voyages declaring "No Ballast On Board" (NOBOB vessels) must conduct saltwater flushing if they will discharge in any U.S. Waters. No sediment from ballast water tanks may be discharged into any U.S. Waters. Finally, no vessel may discharge unexchanged or untreated ballast water into "Waters Federally Protected wholly or in part for Conservation Purposes."

Additional requirements include, but are not limited to, development of a ballast water management plan, training of crew members associated with the discharge, and best management practices that must be followed.

Regulations administered by the Coast Guard

In response to national concerns, the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 (NISA) reauthorized and amended the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990 (NANPCA). NISA required the Coast Guard to establish national voluntary ballast water management guidelines. If the guidelines were deemed inadequate, NISA directed the Coast Guard to convert them into a mandatory national program. To comply with NISA, the Coast Guard established both regulations and guidelines to prevent the introduction of aquatic nuisance species (ANS).

Under the initial nationwide program which began in 1998, a self-policing program was established where ballast water management (BWM) was voluntary for 24-30 months. However, the rate of compliance was found to be inadequate, and vessel operators often failed to submit mandatory ballast water reports to the Coast Guard. In 2004, the voluntary program became mandatory. The Coast Guard has subsequently developed a detailed standard covering operating, monitoring, and reporting requirements, effective June 21, 2012. Current regulations are at 33 CFR 151 subparts C and D.

These regulations established a national mandatory ballast water management program for all vessels equipped with ballast water tanks that enter or operate within U.S. Waters. These regulations also require vessels to maintain a ballast water management plan that is specific for that vessel and assigns responsibility to the master or appropriate official to understand and execute the ballast water management strategy for that vessel. See summary of ballast water regulations. The rules contain specific procedures for ballast discharge as well as reporting and recordkeeping requirements.

NISA was scheduled for review and reauthorization (a process that often includes additional funding for extended programs) in 2002, but as of 2012Congress had not yet enacted any additional changes in the law. Future legislation may eventually lead to more stringent measures, if the current regulatory framework proves inadequate to control the introduction of invasive species.

International waters

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) developed a treaty in February 2004 that controls the discharge of ballast water and sediments from ships on international voyages in order to reduce the risk of introduction of invasive species.

Best Practices

Ballast water management practices and general information are also published by the International Maritime Organization(IMO).

A 1996 study by the National Research Council, Stemming the Tide: Controlling Introductions of Nonindigenous Species by Ships' Ballast Water is available for download from the National Academies Press. While it does not cover current technology, the study provides a useful outline of the technical challenges involved in managing ballast water.

More Resources

EPA VGP Points of contact:

U.S. Coast Guard Points of Contact:

Environmental Standards Division (CG-OES-3)
U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters
2100 Second Street SW
Washington, DC 20593
Tel: 202-372-1402

Additional, related documents: