UK has new regulations to prevent sewage pollution from ships

February 2, 2009 | Environment

Surfers Against Sewage

New regulations that prevent sewage pollution from ships came into force yesterday in the UK.

The regulations will help the UK control a shipping industry, which the Government believes could be responsible for 5% of all coastal sewage pollution incidents.

This is welcome news to the campaigners at Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) who have been concerned by the length of time it has taken for international agreements made by MARPOL on ‘prevention of pollution by sewage from ships’ to be transposed into UK law.

The new law targets ships that are over 400 gross tonnes (GT) in weight or those less than 400GT that are certified to carry more than 15 people. It only applies to those UK flagged ships that leave the UK on international voyages but will also apply to similar ships, which are not UK flagged, if they are in UK waters.

One industry where there will have to be wholescale changes is the cruise ships industry. For too long cruise ships were able to travel the oceans with plumes of raw sewage in their brown wake but the new legislation will help prevent this in the future.

Raw sewage from cruise ships is similar to standard sewage from the land. It contains bacteria and viruses hazardous to humans, can reduce the oxygen levels in the water, can cloud water preventing light reaching the sea bed (essential for most coral growth) and can introduce harmful levels of nutrients to the environment which could lead to potentially toxic algal blooms.

A typical cruise ship today carries around 2,000 passengers, 900 crew and producing 25,000 gallons of human waste a day! Cruises have become a lot more affordable and increasing leisure time means they are becoming an annual fixture in the holiday plans of millions of people. Many UK ports are expecting to see an increase in cruise ship visits this year.

Newly built cruise ships will have already fitted on board state-of-the-art sewage treatment plants, so it is now just the older, smaller cruise ships that are upgrading before they will get issued with sewage prevention certificates.

One slight failing of the legislation still allows for untreated sewage to be discharged when 12 miles off the coast, if ships have approved sewage holding tanks. However with the cost of on-board sewage treatment plants now comparatively cheap to a few years ago it seems the majority of ships have invested in the treatment plants rather than ‘chance their arm’ in exceeding the capacity of their sewage holding tank when inshore of the 12 mile limit.

The new regulations also provide for inspections to be carried out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). Any ship covered by the 2008 Regulations is subject to Flag State Inspection if it is a UK ship, or to Port State Control if it is a foreign ship.  

These inspections will help verify whether the ship has discharged any sewage in violation of the provisions of these regulations; that the ship holds a valid sewage prevention certificate or to investigate any operation where there are clear grounds for believing that the master or the crew of a ship are not familiar with the on-board procedures for preventing pollution by sewage.

Andy Cummins, SAS Campaigns Manager says: “We have been waiting since 2004 for these new regulations to come into effect and now they are here we hope to see an end to sewage pollution from the repeat polluters in the shipping industry.

With the majority of vessels now choosing to fit approved sewage treatment plants the discharged effluent will be clean, safe and meet criteria above even that used for Blue Flag beaches.

Whilst we don’t think there will be too many vessels relying on using just a sewage holding tank we would still urge travellers hoping to book a cruise from the UK to check in advance that the ship they would be sailing on has an approved sewage treatment plant on board”.

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