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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.
Vessel General Permit
The National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) Vessel General Permit (VGP) regulates discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels, including, among others, bilgewater, ballast water, deck runoff/washdown, and "graywater" (wash water from showers and sinks, etc.).
Who is covered by the Regulations?
The current 2013 VGP applies to all non-recreational, non-military vessels of 79 feet or greater in length which discharge in waters of the U.S., including the 3 mile territorial sea and all navigable waters of the Great Lakes. In addition, the ballast water discharge provisions also apply to any non-recreational vessel of less than 79 feet or commercial fishing vessel of any size discharging ballast water. 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.
Recreational vessels as defined in the Clean Water Act are not subject to this permit. In addition, with the exception of ballast water discharges, non-recreational vessels less than 79 feet (24.08 meters) in length, and all commercial fishing vessels, regardless of length, are not subject to this permit.
Failure to have NPDES permit coverage may result in severe civil and criminal penalties.
What is the purpose of the regulations?
Incidental discharges from the normal operation of vessels (e.g., ballast water, bilgewater) may result in negative environmental impacts via the addition of traditional pollutants or, in some cases, by contributing to the spread of aquatic invasive species.
The following is a short summary of the 2008 Vessel General Permit requirements. Readers are urged to download and read the actual 2013 VGP before taking any action. Also, note that EPA has prepared a useful 2013 VGP fact sheet to help answer questions concerning the applicability and content of the permit.
Applicability. As stated above, the 2013 VGP applies to all non-recreational, non-military vessels of 79 feet or greater in length which discharge one or more types of specified wastewater (e.g., ballast, bilge) wastewater in waters of the U.S., including the 3 mile territorial sea and all navigable waters of the Great Lakes. In addition, the ballast water discharge provisions also apply to any non-recreational vessel of less than 79 feet or commercial fishing vessel of any size discharging ballast water. Some vessels that fall under the VGP must submit a Notice of Intent (NOI), while others automatically receive coverage:
- If your vessel is greater than or equal to 300 gross tons or the vessel has the capacity to hold or discharge more than 8 cubic meters (2,113 gallons) of ballast water, you must submit a complete and accurate Notice of Intent (NOI).
- If your vessel is less than 300 gross tons and your vessel does not have the capacity to hold or discharge more than 8 cubic meters (2,113 gallons) of ballast water, you do not need to submit an NOI; you automatically receive coverage under this permit and are authorized to discharge in accordance with the conditions set forth in the VGP.
The VGP requires that vessel owners and operators meet certain requirements for: effluent limitations for discharges, corrective actions for fixing permit violations, inspections, monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting, specific vehicle class and state requirements. These topics are discussed next.
Effluent Limitations Requirements. Effluent limitations serve as the primary mechanism in NPDES permits for controlling discharges of pollutants to receiving waters. When developing effluent limitations for an NPDES permit, EPA considers limits based on both the technology available to control the pollutants and limits that are protective of the water quality standards of the receiving water (i.e., water quality-based effluent limits).
Technology-Based Effluent Limits. The VGP technology-based limits cover two different categories of common vessel discharges, "general" and "specific" categories.
The requirements for general categories of potential discharges are primarily procedural in nature and/or involve planning and they are intended to prevent inadvertent discharges of pollutants. The VGP specifies requirements applicable to the following general categories:
- Material storage
- Toxic and hazardous materials
- Fuel spills/overflows
- Discharges of oil including oily mixtures
As an example, the requirement for preventing fuel spills/overflows specifies that vessel operators must conduct all fueling operations using control measures and practices designed to minimize spills and overflows and ensure prompt containment and cleanup if they occur. As another example, to prevent inadvertent discharges from stored materials, vessel operators must implement measures for cargoes or other onboard materials which might wash overboard or dissolve as a result of contact with precipitation or surface water spray, or which may be blown overboard by air currents, and minimize the amount of time these items are exposed to such conditions.
The requirements for specific categories of potential discharges include equipment requirements, treatment/control measures, operating procedures, training, and other requirements to limit or prevent discharges of pollutants from these operations. The VGP specifies requirements that are applicable to the following specific categories of discharges:
- Deck washdown and runoff and above water line hull cleaning
- Discharges of ballast water
- Anti-fouling hull coatings
- Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF)
- Boiler/economizer blowdown
- Cathodic protection
- Chain locker effluent
- Controllable pitch propeller and thruster hydraulic fluid and other oil to sea, etc
- Distillation and reverse osmosis brine
- Elevator pit effluent
- Firemain systems
- Freshwater layup
- Gas turbine wash water
- Motor gasoline and compensating discharge
- Non-oily machinery wastewater
- Refrigeration and air condensate discharge
- Seawater cooling overboard discharge (including non-contact engine cooling water; hydraulic system cooling water, refrigeration cooling water)
- Seawater piping biofouling prevention
- Boat engine wet exhaust
- Sonar dome discharge
- Underwater ship husbandry discharges
- Welldeck discharges graywater mixed with sewage from vessels
- Exhaust gas scrubber washwater discharge
The requirements for specific categories of discharges are generally more explicit than the requirements for general categories. For example, vessels greater than 400 gross tons that regularly sail outside the territorial sea (at least once per month) may not discharge treated bilgewater within 1 nm of shore, if technologically feasible. As another example, all vessels which are equipped with ballast tanks must comply with specified best management practices (BMPs), such as avoiding uptake of ballast water in areas known to have infestations or populations of harmful organisms and pathogens (e.g., algal blooms).
In addition to the requirements specified in the VGP, this permit also adopts related regulations by reference that must be met. For example, in addition to ballast water standards specified within the VGP, discharges of ballast water must also comply with the Coast Guard regulations found in 33 CFR Part 151.
Water Quality Effluent Limits. EPA generally expects that compliance with the other conditions in the VGP will control discharges as necessary to meet applicable water quality standards (numeric standards set by EPA or states for specific water bodies that may be under stress from pollution). However, to ensure that local water quality is not deteriorated, EPA reserves the right to impose water quality-based limitations on a site-specific basis, or require you to obtain coverage under an individual permit. This may occur for example, if information in your NOI (if applicable), required reports, or from other sources indicates that, after meeting the technology-based limitations in the VGP, your discharges are not sufficiently controlled to meet applicable water quality standards. EPA or an authorized representative of EPA may inform vessel owner/operators of specific requirements via dock side postings at marinas and ports or by specifically contacting the owner/operator of a vessel.
Corrective Actions Requirements. Corrective actions are steps specified in the VGP that must be taken if vessel owners/operators fail to meet or violate any of the requirements of the VGP to ensure that the problem is eliminated and will not be repeated in the future. You must take corrective action if any of the following problems are identified:
- You violate one or more effluent limits or any other requirement of this permit, or an inspection or evaluation of your vessel by an EPA official or an official agent acting on EPA's behalf determines that modifications to the control measures are necessary to meet the effluent limit;
- You become aware, or EPA determines, that your measures do not control discharges as stringently as necessary to meet applicable water quality standards; or
- You find, or EPA determines, that your pollution control measures or best management practices are not being properly operated and maintained, or are not having the intended effect in minimizing pollutant discharges.
Problems requiring corrective action might be identified through:
- Routine visual inspections or comprehensive annual inspections required by the VGP,
- Any other inspection or evaluation of your operations by you, a government official, or anyone else, or
- Through any other means.
The VGP outlines specific measures that must be taken when corrective actions are necessary. These include:
- Following the identification of any of the problems listed above, you must conduct a corrective action assessment into the nature, cause, and potential options for eliminating these problems.
- You must retain the findings of your corrective action assessment in your recordkeeping documentation or in your ship's log, signed and certified in accordance with the VGP.
The VGP provides deadlines for eliminating problems depending on the situation:
Compliance with many permit requirements can and should be accomplished immediately. These requirements include, but are not limited to housekeeping and certain operation and maintenance requirements. In these situations, you must return to compliance immediately.
- Compliance with some permit requirements may require additional time for the vessel owner/operator to reasonably correct the problem. The following deadlines apply for eliminating the problem depending on the type of corrective action that must be taken (see VGP for details).
- Corrective actions that can be accomplished with relatively simple adjustments to your control measures, using existing personnel and resources, and not requiring the vessel to be in dry dock. Timing: as soon as possible but no later than 2 weeks after the discovery of the problem.
- Corrective actions that require new parts or the installation of new equipment, not requiring the vessel to be in dry dock. Timing: you must address the underlying cause of the noncompliance and return to compliance and/or complete necessary repairs no later than 3 months after the discovery of the problem.
- Corrective actions that require large or comprehensive renovations, alterations, or repairs to the vessel that can only be achieved while the vessel is in dry dock. Timing: you must address the underlying cause of the noncompliance and return to compliance and/or complete necessary renovations or repairs prior to re-launching the vessel from dry dock.
Note that the initial occurrence of the problem constitutes a violation of the permit. Conducting the assessment and correcting the problem does not absolve you of liability for this original violation. However, failure to comply with corrective actions constitutes an additional permit violation. EPA considers the appropriateness and promptness of corrective action in determining enforcement responses to permit violations. EPA may impose additional requirements and schedules of compliance, including requirements to submit additional information concerning the condition(s) triggering corrective action or schedules and requirements more stringent than specified in the VGP.
Inspections, Monitoring, Recordkeeping, and Reporting Requirements. The VGP contains specific requirements covering inspections, monitoring, reporting, and recording. These include:
Inspections and Monitoring
On a routine basis, someone must inspect all areas addressed in the VGP to verify that permit requirements are being met. Areas to be inspected include (but are not limited to):
- cargo holds
- boiler areas
- machinery storage areas
- At least once per quarter, qualified personnel must sample any discharge stream, such as bilgewater or graywater for any signs of visible pollutants or constituents of concern, including:
- visible sheens
- suspended solids
- floating solids
- changes to clarity
- At least once every 12 months, qualified personnel must conduct a comprehensive vessel inspection.
- Each routine vessel inspection or discharge stream sampling must be documented in the official ship logbook (or as part of an alternative type of record that may be specified in the permit).
- Any drydock reports that have been prepared by the class society or their flag administrations must be available to EPA or an authorized representative of EPA upon request.
- Written records must be kept on the vessel
- Between 30 months and 36 months after obtaining permit coverage for each vessel, owner/operators must submit a one-time report.
- At least once per year, all instances of noncompliance with the permit must be reported to the appropriate EPA regional office.
- If a hazardous substance or oil is discharged, and if the amount discharged during a 24-hour period is considered a reportable quantity, the incident must be reported to the National Response Center (NRC) (800-424-8802)
- Special recordkeeping requirements for vessels equipped with ballast tanks that are bound for a port or place in the United States may be found at 33 CFR Part 151.
- The permit may specify additional reporting requirements that apply to the specific vessel.
Vessel Class Specific Requirements. The VGP contains vessel class specific rules that apply to:
- large cruise ships (authorized to carry 500 people or more for hire)
- medium cruise ships (authorized to carry 100 to 499 people for hire)
- large ferries
- barges (such as hopper barges, chemical barges, tank barges, fuel barges, crane barges, dry bulk cargo barges)
- oil tankers or petroleum tankers
- research vessels
- emergency vessels (fire boats, police boats), and
- vessels employing experimental ballast water treatment systems.
The vessel class specific requirements include, for example, that the discharge of treated graywater from large cruise ships meet numerical standards for fecal coliform and total residual chlorine. As another example, large ferries may not discharge untreated below deck water from parking areas or other storage areas for motor vehicles or other motorized equipment into waters subject to this permit without first treating the effluent with an oily water separator or other appropriate device.
State Requirements. The VGP is effective in every State and Indian Country Land except in Taos Pueblo Tribal Lands (New Mexico). Some states have certified the VGP without conditions. Other states have added conditions. For example, California has added, among other conditions:
Vessel discharges must be in accordance with the requirements of Public Resources Code (PRC) section 72400 et seq. None of the 26 discharges covered by the VGP may contain hazardous waste as defined under California law, as well as hazardous substances listed in Attachment 2 of this document. The following other wastes are prohibited from discharge: sewage sludge, used or spent oil, garbage or trash (including plastic), photo-developing wastes, dry cleaning wastes, noxious liquid substance residues, and medical wastes. The vessel owner or operator must submit a certification stating that hazardous wastes as defined under California law, and prohibited wastes, will not be discharged.
A total of 25 states have added conditions to the VGP. These can be found in Section 6 of the VGP.
Additional Information. The appendices of the VGP contain additional information that is useful to owners/operators of affected vessels, including definitions, EPA Regional Contacts, NOI instructions, sample reports, etc.
Best Management Practices
In addition to the best management practices contained in the VGP, the following are useful sources of BMPs for discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels:
Vessel Discharges Technical and Issue Papers (EPA). Recent publications covering vessel wastewater treatment, best management practices and related topics.
EPA's Electronic Notice of Intent system (eNOI). Can be used to file information about vessel permit Notice of Intent, search for information on vessel NOIs submitted by vessel owners and operators, as well as update or terminate coverage under each permit.
VGP Background Information. Outlines how EPA regulates incidental vessel discharges. Furthermore, identifies why the NPDES vessels program only regulates certain discharges, and only from certain vessels.
Vessel Discharge Contacts. Identify relevant contacts at EPA headquarters and regional offices.
EPA VGP Points of contact:
U.S. Coast Guard Points of Contact:
Environmental Standards Division (CG-5224)
U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters
2100 Second Street SW
Washington, DC 20593