The EPA issued drafts of two vessel general permits seeking to regulate discharge from commercial vessels (military and recreational vessels are excluded) on November 30. The draft permits (1) Vessel General Permit for Discharges Incidental to The Normal Operation of Vessels (VGP) and (2) Small Vessel General Permit for Discharges Incidental to The Normal Operation of Vessels Less Than 79 Feet (sVGP) address environmental risks relating to ship-borne pollutants and invasive species from ballast water discharges. The new standards, if approved, will require commercial vessels to install technology strong enough to kill at least some of the fish, mussels and other organisms in ballast water before it’s dumped into harbors after ships arrive in port. The EPA’s brief overview of the two draft permits can be found here.

The draft VGP, if approved, will replace the current VGP (effective February 6, 2008) and will impose numeric ballast water discharge limits for most vessels. The draft VGP also contains more stringent effluent limits for oil to sea interfaces and exhaust gas scrubber washwater.

The draft sVGP, which is an entirely new permit, would authorize discharges incidental to the normal operation of non-military and non-recreational vessels less than 79 feet in length. Currently, a Congressional moratorium (initiated by Public Law 110-299 and subsequently extended by Public Law 111-215) exempts all incidental discharges, with the exception of ballast water, from commercial fishing vessels and non-recreational, non-military vessels less than 79 feet in length from having to obtain a Clean Water Act permit until December 18, 2013.  When the moratorium expires, the draft sVGP, if approved, would provide permit coverage for such vessels.  However, vessel owners/operators will be required to complete the sVGP Permit Authorization and Record of Inspection form, which must be signed and maintained onboard the vessel for the entire permit term.  Moreover, vessel owners/operators will be required to conduct an annual self-inspection and certify that he or she has done so by signing the form each year.

Undoubtedly, the drafts will be subject to much debate during the 75-day public comment period and beyond.  Comments can be submitted during the comment period online at http://www.regulations.gov (instructions are provided), by email to ow-docket@epa.gov, or by mail to Water Docket, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mail Code: 2822T, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington DC 20460 Attention Docket ID No: EPA-HQ-OW-2011-{place appropriate number here} (0141 for VGP; 0150 for sVGP).  Additionally, the EPA will hold two public meetings and one webcast to give an overview of the proposed permits and to take comment. The webcast date and time has not been established, but the meetings are scheduled as follows:

1. January 11, 2012, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (EST) or until all comments have been heard at EPA East 1153, 1201 Constitution Ave NW, Washington DC 20460;

2. January 23, 2012, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm (CST) or until all comments have been heard at Ralph H. Metcalfe Federal Building, Room 331, 77 West Jackson Blvd, Chicago IL 60604.

Following the public comment period, the EPA anticipates releasing a final draft of the permit in November 2012.