Here in the UK, we have embarked on a divisive debate about our membership of the EU: should we stay or should we go? This is not the place to debate that argument, but one commentator reported a revealing conversation he once had with a US trade negotiator working on a deal between the US and the EU that was taking longer to agree than had been expected.
It was taking time, the official had said, because the US had met its equal. When it negotiates with individual countries, he explained, “normally we just fax them our terms and tell them to sign.”
There is a parallel here with ballast water regulations. IMO and the rest of the world has committed itself to the Ballast Water Management Convention (BWMC). The US has instead written its own rules with different standards and they have come into force. In reality, these are the global measures that shipowners must adhere to. These are our terms, the US has said; sign here.
So what that there are no systems yet that are type-approved to deliver treated ballast water that meets the US Coast Guard standards? So what that there is little clarity over how port inspectors will test against the standard? So what that it costs manufacturers millions of dollars to work through the type-approval process? And so what that the only three manufacturers to jump through all the hoops have been told that the testing process they have relied on thus far is not, after all, acceptable to the USCG?
With the BWMC likely to reach its trigger tonnage any time soon, with manufacturers ramping up their capacity to meet the expected surge in demand, and with many of those equipment makers jockeying to become the first to gain USCG type-approval, this is big and important stuff.
So I had been awaiting the annual ‘state of the USCG’ speech on 23 February from its commandant, Adm Paul Zukunft, with some anticipation. For most of the world’s commercial fleet, investments worth many millions and strategy decisions that will have implications for years depend on the USCG’s approach to ballast water treatment. In this year’s speech, surely, there would be some acknowledgement of the commitment that owners and operators are making towards meeting the USCG’s standards and keeping US trade lanes open.
But no. Nowhere in his nearly 4,000 words did Adm Zukunft say anything about USCG’s role in merchant shipping and very little about international matters – apart from a thinly-veiled criticism of the UK Royal Navy’s recruitment policies.
I confess that I was not there to hear him deliver his speech or to attend the subsequent press conference at which he was asked to comment on the ballast water treatment issue. The news report I have seen of that press conference indicated that he is aware of the problem: “While we have a final [ballast water management system] rule, what we don’t have is the technology that can be brought to bear to implement it,” he is reported to have said. But he “hinted” that type-approval “could finally get underway in 2016,” the report said.
Perhaps I was expecting too much. The USCG is, after all, a branch of the US armed forces, so its approach is inevitably military in bearing. And when the military says ‘jump’, the only acceptable response is ‘how high?’
Commercial organisations do not have that mindset. They will consider whether there is an alternative to jumping. A ladder, perhaps, or a bridge – built with existing technologies and readily available materials – would reach the same landing point as the demanded jump, without inventing special springs.
The four manufacturers that are challenging the USCG’s rejection of their ‘most probable number’ analysis technique are making a brave stand but I fear they will ultimately be unsuccessful. The USCG has set its bar and it has set it high. Whether we like it or not, our command is to jump over it, you ’orrible lot.
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