The five-year AMS window is closing for many vessels and owners whose systems are awaiting US Coast Guard type-approval, warns ABS Advisory Services’ senior principal engineer William Burroughs
The end of the US Coast Guard’s Alternate Management System (AMS) programme for ballast water discharges means owners whose systems are not US Coast Guard type-approved should seek an extension or risk losing the ability to trade in US waters.
Extensions to the AMS acceptance period, reviewed on a case-by-case basis, could give shipowners permission to continue discharging into US waters for longer than the original five-year AMS period.
The US Coast Guard created the AMS programme to allow it to enforce BWM regulations before issuing any type-approvals. Intended as a bridging system, the AMS programme established a five-year period in which owners could install an IMO type-approved system having been accepted by the USCG as an AMS, on the basis that it was at least as effective as ballast water exchange.
By June 2012 when the US Coast Guard’s final rule became effective, the US Coast Guard anticipated some BWMS systems would be type-approved within five years, allowing most vendors to upgrade their AMS-accepted ballast water management system (BWMS) to US Coast Guard type-approved BWMS before the end of their five-year periods.
The US Coast Guard missed its estimate by approximately one year.
All newbuild vessels constructed after 1 December 2013 are required to have BWMS, which could be an AMS accepted system, upon delivery. Most existing vessels (it depends on size of the vessel’s ballast water capacity) built before 1 December 2013 are required to have a BWMS retrofitted at the first scheduled drydocking after 1 January 2016.
The first US Coast Guard type-approval was granted in early December 2016 and by the end of 2018, there were 15 US Coast Guard type-approved BWMS. As of January 2020, there are 25 type-approved BWMS and at least six applications for BWMS not yet having any previous version US Coast Guard type-approval.
The US Coast Guard will consider extensions of AMS periods to help relieve the pressure on shipowners with AMS-accepted BWMS close to being type-approved from having to remove and replace these BWMS. These short-term extensions could help owners to continue operating in US waters until the vendor can complete the upgrade from AMS-accepted to US Coast Guard approved configurations.
A ballast water system may be granted an AMS extension if the vendor has commenced testing for US Coast Guard type-approval, a process that can be facilitated by ABS. Feedback received so far is that the US Coast Guard is unlikely to grant an extension if this process will take more than a year.
The extension mechanism is designed not to penalise owners that regularly trade to the US who might be close to their five year deadline, but whose BWMS is only a few months away from Coast Guard type-approval.
It also recognises that in the case of system modifications required for type-approval, components may not be available in time due to high demand, so there is flexibility to let the industry catch up.
Many vendors are proactively working out client support programmes to make sure systems are updated or extensions are requested, but others have yet to understand what they need to do and explain to owners whether modifications are available or if a completely new system will be required.
It is equally important that shipowners evaluate their AMS timeline and work with vendors with the aim of obtaining an extension if necessary; it is the owners, not vendors, who are responsible for their compliance.
Another important issue for owners to understand is that where a BWMS is already installed, a subsequent approval by the US Coast Guard does not automatically make the installed system compliant. All modifications or upgrades required to match the USCG type-approved configuration must be carried out on the installed equipment by the end of the five-year AMS period.
There are several AMS-accepted systems that are unlikely to achieve type-approval, creating a potential problem for owners of these systems if they intend to continue trading to the United States.
In the years since ratification of the IMO Convention, vendors have come and gone; even those that survived may choose not to put their oldest systems through type-approval even though some ships have this equipment.
Vendors which have yet to begin the process of achieving type-approval may look ahead a couple of years to when the EPA Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) comes into force and conclude that the investment to bring older systems up to standard might not be justified.
VIDA might not provide ‘backwards compatibility’ to the AMS programme and is likely only to reference systems with full US Coast Guard type-approval as being compliant.
ABS estimates that there are thousands of ships in the AMS programme, several of which have already exceeded their five-year periods. We are pleased the US Coast Guard has begun to consider an AMS extension programme and we have already helped many owners apply for these extensions. Experience to date is that the compliance solution for each ship will be different according to each vendor, their timeline for US Coast Guard type-approval, and how fast the vendors could upgrade their AMS-accepted installations, especially when new parts are required.
The bigger question raised by the end of AMS period is whether mid-life vessels around 15 years old will be economically viable if they require a complete BWMS retrofit that could cost US$750,000 or more. Owners faced with this option might be forced to conclude that scrapping the vessel is a more attractive option.
Many first-generation BWMS were designed based on limited operating experience and not all are easily upgradeable to the current model configurations. Vessels which might otherwise have been marketed with 10 additional years’ ability to trade in US waters could prove hard to justify if the opportunity of worldwide trading is limited without substantial additional investment.
Ballast water treatment does not stop with compliance. Industry’s stakeholders discuss the issues in the Ballast Water Treatment Beyond Compliance webinar, which is now available to view.