Environmental issues take centre stage at IMO meeting

Marine Environment Protection Committee - 46th session: 23-27 April 2001

At the end of a week-long meeting of the Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 46, April 23rd – 27th) at IMO headquarters in London, delegates from IMO’s 158 member States agreed to a number of important new measures aimed at further increasing protection of the marine environment from pollution.

Among them is a timetable that will see most single-hull oil tankers eliminated by 2015 or earlier. Double-hull tankers offer greater protection of the environment from pollution in certain types of accident. All new oil tankers built since 1996 are required to have double hulls.

The new phase-out timetable, which will be enshrined in a revised chapter 13G of the MARPOL Convention on the prevention of marine pollution, is one of a range of post-Erika measures tabled by IMO. The new regulation will enter into force in September 2002, the earliest possible time permitted under the MARPOL Convention. (See Briefing 10/2001).

In other key environmental issues, the MEPC:

Convention to outlaw TBT and other organotin compounds in marine anti-foulants

The Committee worked on finalising a draft proposed Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems, scheduled to be adopted at a Conference in October this year.  The essence of the Convention is that ships should no longer be allowed to apply organotin compounds after 1 January 2003, leading to a complete ban by 1 January 2008.

Many existing anti-fouling paints used by ships to prevent barnacles and other marine life attaching themselves to ships’ hulls work by slowly leaching metallic compounds into the sea. But studies have shown that these compounds persist in the water, killing sea life, harming the environment and possibly entering the food chain. One of the most effective types of antifouling paint, developed in the 1960s, contains the organotin tributyltin (TBT), which has been proven to cause deformations in oysters and sex changes in whelks.       

Under the terms of the proposed new Convention, ships above a certain size would be required to have their anti-fouling systems surveyed and to carry an anti-fouling certificate. Anti-fouling systems to be prohibited or controlled would be listed in Annex I of the Convention. Initially, the annex would include reference to "organotin compounds which act as biocides in anti-fouling systems".  The Convention would allow for other substances to be included in the Annex and sets out a procedure for doing this: a proposal for a particular substance to be prohibited or restricted would be put before a group established by IMO which would assess the adverse affects of the particular anti-fouling system. The Convention would provide an agreed format for an international anti-fouling certificate and set out procedures for survey and certification.

The MEPC approved in principle the draft Convention at its 45th meeting last October, but a number of issues remain open for discussion before the planned conference later this year.

The Committee reviewed a number of issues during the session, and prepared a revised draft convention.

The Conference in October will be tasked with finalising specific articles, including entry into force criteria and whether ships should be allowed to over-paint existing TBT coatings with a sealer or be required to sandblast back to bare steel in order to comply with the Convention’s requirements.

Reducing the effects of harmful organisms in ships’ ballast water

The MEPC also continued working towards convening a Diplomatic Conference to adopt a Convention on the management and control of ballast water in 2003, and in the interim agreed a joint MEPC/MSC Circular emphasising the need for ballast water and sediment management options to be taken into account when developing and building new ships. The Circular is subject to approval by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) at its next session (30 May- 8 June).

The management of ballast water has become an important issue in international efforts to reduce pollution from ships. When a ship takes on ballast water, it may also inadvertently ingest a soup of microscopic aquatic organisms, some of which may be toxic, others potentially harmful if removed from their own local ecosystem and introduced into another when discharged. Alien species that have no natural enemies can reproduce dramatically and cause tremendous damage.

Ballast water exchange at sea is currently the only widely used technique for preventing the spread of unwanted aquatic organisms in ships’ ballast water. But this technique has a number of limitations. Ship safety is a main concern, with weather and sea conditions playing a critical role in determining when ‘at-sea exchange’ is safe. It is, however, likely that new ships will be designed to accommodate ballast exchange in a much wider range of circumstances. Moreover, the percentage of organisms successfully removed by the method depends largely on the type of organism.

The MEPC agreed to establish a Correspondence Group to work on developing a Ballast Water Treatment (BWT) Standard which could ultimately be used to assess the validity of other treatment options.

The proposed new instrument for ballast water management is based on a so-called “two-tier” approach. Tier 1 includes requirements that would apply to all ships, such as mandatory requirements for a Ballast Water and Sediments Management Plan, a Ballast Water Record Book and a requirement that new ships shall carry out ballast water and sediment management procedures to a given standard or range of standards. Existing ships would be required to carry out ballast water management procedures after a phase-in period, but these procedures may differ from those to be applied to new ships.

Tier 2 includes special requirements which may apply in certain areas and would include procedures and criteria for the designation of such areas in which additional controls may be applied to the discharge and/or uptake of ballast water. The text for Tier 2 remains to be developed.

Ship Recycling

The Committee agreed to re-establish a Correspondence Group on Ship Recycling to look further into IMO’s perceived role in the matter, with the possibility of establishing a Working Group at the next session to discuss the issue in depth.

IMO’s role in the recycling of ships, the terminology used to refer to ship scrapping, was first raised at the 44th MEPC session in March 2000 following which a correspondence group was established to research this issue and provide a range of information about current ship recycling practices and suggestions on the role of IMO.

The comprehensive report of the correspondence group was presented to the Committee and following debate, the Committee agreed the Correspondence Group should now work on the following issues, with a view to submitting a report to the next session in 2002:

  1. to identify all stakeholders and their perceived roles during the life-cycle of a ship;
  2. to identify and elaborate on the perceived role of IMO in ship recycling;
  3. to identify the existing international, national and additional industry and/or other relevant standards/guidelines, possibly applicable to ship recycling within the perceived role of IMO;
  4. to recommend possible courses of action for further consideration by the Committee, and to identify the pros and cons associated with each option.

Special Areas and Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas 

MEPC 46 approved new draft Guidelines for the Designation of Special Areas under MARPOL 73/78 and new draft Guidelines for the Identification of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs).

In Annexes I, II and V, MARPOL 73/78 defines certain sea areas as "special areas" in which, for technical reasons relating to their oceanographical and ecological condition and to their sea traffic, the adoption of special mandatory methods for the prevention of sea pollution is required. Under the Convention, these special areas are provided with a higher level of protection than other areas of the sea. A PSSA is an area that needs special protection through action by IMO because of its significance for recognized ecological or socio-economic or scientific reasons and which may be vulnerable to damage by international maritime activities.

The revised guidelines are scheduled to be adopted in the form of an Assembly resolution by the 22nd Assembly in November. They will update and replace resolution A.885(21) Procedures for designation of particularly sensitive sea areas and the adoption of associated protective measures and amendments to the guidelines contained in resolution A.720(17), and resolution A.720(17).

Additional material to be included in the new proposed resolution includes a flow-chart to assist Member States in deciding the most appropriate measures in providing protection to sensitive sea areas.

There are currently two designated PSSAs: the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, and the Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago in Cuba. The Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago was designated a PSSA in September 1997.

Colombia’s Malpelo Island PSSA agreed in principle

The Committee considered additional information provided by Colombia in respect of an application for the marine area around Malpelo Island to become a PSSA and agreed in principle that the proposal met the criteria for PSSA designation. However, the Committee instructed the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation, which meets for its next session in July 2001, to report back on any navigational issues to be taken into account prior to final approval being given.

United States Florida Keys PSSA agreed in principle

The Committee considered an application by the United States for the marine area around the Florida Keys to become a PSSA and agreed in principle that the proposal met the criteria for PSSA designation. However, the Committee instructed the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation, which meets for its next session in July 2001, to report back on any navigational issues to be taken into account prior to final approval being given.

OPRC Working Group

The working group on implementation of the OPRC Convention received a detailed report from France about the clean-up operation following the sinking of the Erika and discussed some of the issues the incident raised in terms of responding to this kind of oil spill.

The Group also developed an initial programme of topics for the 3rd. International R&D Forum, to be held in Brest, France in March 2002, which will examine research and development of new technology in oil spill response, particularly regarding spills of high density or heavy oils like bunker oil.

The OPRC Group and the Committee also approved a joint IMO/Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) publication on Guidance on Managing Seafood Safety During and After Oil Spills.

Air Pollution

 Greenhouse gas emissions  - Working Group at next session

The MEPC reviewed submission relating to greenhouse gas emissions from ships and agreed to establish a Working Group at the next session to:

  1. evaluate proposals for greenhouse gas emissions reduction contained in the IMO Study on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Ships;
  2. collate and evaluate information submitted by Members;
  3. identify appropriate Sub-Committees for involvement;
  4. draw up a work plan; and
  5. prepare materials for consideration in developing an IMO strategy for greenhouse gas reduction.

Report for “Rio + 10” agreed

The Committee approved a report to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development on IMO’s major developments since UNCED 1992, as part of the so-called “Rio + 10” process.

Circulars and Resolutions

Sewage – MEPC Circ agreed

The Committee agreed an MEPC circular on information from Contracting States to MARPOL Annex IV (Prevention of pollution by sewage from ships) to IMO of regulations on discharge of sewage in waters under their jurisdiction and available reception facilities for sewage in their ports. The aim of the Circular is to request States to provide the information required, in order to facilitate the implementation of MARPOL Annex IV when it enters into force.

Annex IV of MARPOL has not yet received enough ratification to enter into force (It has been ratified by 79 States representing 43.44 percent of world shipping tonnage, as at 31 March 2001 and needs 509 percent of world tonnage to enter into force). To alleviate the perceived problems with ratification of Annex IV, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) reviewed the Annex and in March 2000, at its 44th session, approved a revised and updated Annex IV. However, the revised Annex IV cannot be adopted until the existing Annex IV enters into force.

Flag State implementation issues – draft circulars and resolutions

The MEPC approved the following draft Circulars and resolutions agreed by the Sub-Committee on Flag State Implementation (FSI). The drafts are subject to concurrence by the MSC at its 74th session in May-June:

  • draft MSC/MEPC circular on Communication of information on authorization of recognized organizations (ROs);
  • draft Assembly resolution on Revised Self-assessment of flag State performance, for submission to the twenty-second session of the Assembly for adoption;
  • draft Assembly resolution on Revised Guidelines on the implementation of the ISM Code by Administrations for submission to the twenty-second session of the Assembly for adoption;
  • draft MSC/MEPC circular on Measures to improve port State control procedures;
  • draft MSC/MEPC circular on Endorsement of certificates with the date of completion of the survey on which they are based.

The MEPC also endorsed  an MSC/MEPC Circular on the beneficial impact of the ISM Code and its role as an indicator of safe operation and environmental protection.

Note: The 46th session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee was chaired by Mr Mike Julian from Australia and held at IMO Headquarters in London between April 23rd and 27th.