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Gard News 204, November 2011/January 2012

Developments in the US and Canada may lead to greater enforcement of MARPOL air emission standards.


For over two years, vessels calling in the US have needed to be in compliance with MARPOL Annex VI regulations regarding air pollution from ships.  This is part of the rising general trend of governmental focus on ship air emissions, particularly in certain areas of the United States. 

On a federal level, the main agency charged with enforcement of ship air emissions is the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is very experienced when it comes to the measurement of air pollutants, but had hardly any experience regarding the particular issues concerning the operation and outputs of marine diesel engines.  As a result, there was a seeming natural hesitation on the part of that agency to engage in a programme of enforcement of MARPOL emission standards, via the US enabling statute, the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships.

But on 27th June 2011, the EPA addressed that apparent shortcoming, by linking up with a brethren federal agency much more familiar with maritime matters, the US Coast Guard (USCG).  In the form of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two agencies, the agreement creates a path for the development of a protocol for enforcement, review of documents and examination and inspection on ships.

The lead agency will be the USCG, which will parlay its experience and knowledge of ship operations and equipment into effective enforcement actions.  But it is a partnership, in that when the USCG becomes enmeshed in an area of technical air sampling or measurement, for example, it can call upon the EPA to become actively involved and lend that expertise to the investigation.  It is anticipated that the USCG will simply add, as an additional section, practices and procedures to its already well established roster of areas of ship inspection,  that will enable it to detect violations of the Annex VI standards and requirements.

Thus the regular ship inspection in the US will have an additional element of potential violation for the visiting ship, and it could prove to be a fertile ground for vessel regulatory violations.  On the one hand, such inspections will seem very familiar to ship crews, but the need for USCG inspectors to check ship air emissions will result in unfamiliar inspection routines.  The current understanding is that there will not be special USCG boardings just to inspect for air emission violations, but it is possible for that to occur in situations where there appears to be visual indications of air emission problems. Canada may likewise prove to be a place where more ship air emission cases will possibly be instituted. Recent media reports indicate that the foundation for such cases is starting to be laid there.  In Halifax, Dalhousie University will be commissioned by the federal government to take air quality measurements at up to 55 different sites throughout that area, allowing for the government to understand the baseline air quality standard in that area, in preparation for measurements of vessel air emissions against such a backdrop.

Starting on 1st January 2015, Canada and the US will be poised to enforce maximum sulphur content in ships' fuel of 1,000 parts per million. By that time, both nations will be well experienced in the measurement of sulphur in ambient air and at ship stacks at such levels, and enforcement will accelerate. This, in turn, requires that vessel operators prepare their crews for what will be coming.


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