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Mandatory use of ‘Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants’ in US waters from December 2013


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA has published a new version of the Vessel General Permit (VGP), which has been in force since 19th December 2013. From this date, all ‘vessels’ calling in the ‘waters of the United States’ must:

  • Obtain a Vessel General Permit (VGP)
  • Use Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants in all oil-to-sea interfaces, unless technically infeasible

A VGP is required for MODUs (Mobile Offshore Drilling Units) such as semi-submersible drilling rigs and drill ships.

Why the change?

The EPA’s recognition of the impact that lubricant discharges (not accidental spills) have on the marine ecosystem has motivated the change. The 2013 VGP mandates the use of EALs for all applications where lubricants are likely to enter the sea, not mineral oils, as EALs can offer a significantly reduced environmental impact across all applications.

The legislation covers most commercial marine vessels over 79 feet in length, regardless of when they were built. There are exceptions, the EPA’s website gives more detail about what is covered and what is not. Most commercial vessels under 79 feet will come under the EPA's small Vessel General Permit (sVGP), when issued. Visit http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/npdes/vessels/Vessel-General-Permit.cfm for more information.

Submit a Notice of Intent (NOI) to discharge to the EPA prior to entering US waters.

Generally this needs to be provided to the EPA at least seven days in advance for electronic NOI, and 30 days for paper NOI.

The VGP provides a copy of the NOI and further details about how it applies and submission deadlines. Once issued, permits will last five years, but annual reports must be provided to the EPA to demonstrate compliance.

The EPA defines EALs as lubricants that are biodegradable, minimally toxic and not bioaccumulative. The definition includes products that are labelled under OSPAR, Blue Angel, European Ecolabel, Nordic Swan and Swedish Standard SS 1554701. Products that have one of the labels above will be classified as an EAL or if they meet the criteria set by the EPA for biodegradation, bioaccumulation and toxicity.

Castrol BioStat, BioBar and BioTac product ranges are registered under OSPAR (Oslo and Paris Convention) and meet the US 2013 VGP EAL criteria.

‘Oil-to-sea interfaces’ where EALS must be used include controllable pitch propeller and thruster gear fluids, paddle wheel propulsion, stern tubes, thruster bearings, stabilizers, rudder bearings, azimuth thrusters, propulsion pod lubrication, and wire rope and mechanical equipment subject to immersion. Also covered is any on-deck equipment which has contact with water when at sea (is subject to immersion), as well as lubricants used in two stroke diesel inboard engines that generate wet exhaust.

The permit defines “technically infeasible” as:

  • No EAL products are approved for use in a given application
  • Products that come pre-lubricated (e.g. wire ropes lubricated for life during manufacture, with no EAL available during manufacture)
  • EALs meeting the manufacturers’ specifications are not available in any port at which the vessel calls
  • Change over and use of an EAL must wait until the vessel’s next dry-docking

If it’s technically infeasible to use an EAL, you must explain the reasons in your record-keeping documentation, and note the use of a non-environmentally acceptable lubricant in your vessel’s Annual Report.

The EPA is relying on vessel operators to self-report EAL use. You must keep records Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) on board for all EALs used in oil-to-sea interfaces.

You must also document whether the EALs are registered under a labeling program (e.g. DfE, OSPAR, Ecolabel), and you must record the reason if it is technically infeasible for you to use an EAL.

The US coastguard will carry out spot-checks on vessels to verify compliance. Action taken for non-compliance ranges from written warnings and to fines depending on the severity and frequency of non-compliance.

Castrol BioStat, BioBar and BioTac product ranges are registered under OSPAR (Oslo and Paris Convention) and meet the US 2013 VGP criteria for being EALs.

The Small Vessel General Permit (sVGP) is still currently under revision. It is likely that the sVGP will be issued in the summer of 2013, with its requirements coming into force on 19th December 2014.

The sVGP applies to all non-recreational, non-military vessels less than 79 feet in length operating in US waters (as defined above). However small vessels already permitted under the Vessel General Permit are not required to also be permitted under the small Vessel General Permit. For example lifeboats on a larger vessel would be permitted under the “mother vessel’s” VGP permit.

The sVGP specifies that vessels may not discharge oil, including oily mixtures, in quantities that may be harmful or cause a visible sheen. They may also not use any dispersants, cleaners, chemicals, or other materials or emulsifiers that would remove the appearance of a visible sheen.

The permit requires that, unless technically infeasible, vessels must use EALs in all machinery and equipment, including but not limited to stern tubes, wires, and two-stroke outboard motors, where discharges of oil to surrounding waters are likely to occur.

Seeing an iridescent sheen on the surface of water can be used to detect the presence of an oil spill. The term "oil" applies to both petroleum e.g. crude oil and non-petroleum oils e.g. vegetable oils. Although it is commonly referred to as the “sheen rule” the rule does not only apply to products that sheen.

The VGP does not authorize the discharge of an Environmentally Acceptable Lubricant in a quantity defined as harmful under the “sheen rule”.

Quantity that may be harmful means that it may not: (a) Violate applicable water quality standards; or (b) Cause a film or sheen (an iridescent appearance on the surface of water) upon or discoloration of the surface of the water or adjoining shorelines or cause a sludge or emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or upon adjoining shorelines.

The addition of dispersants or emulsifiers to oil to be discharged, to circumvent the conditions above, is prohibited. All of these types of discharges must be reported under the “sheen rule” to the National Response Center or if not practicable the Coast Guard or EPA.

Due to their insolubility, the majority of base oils commonly used in lubricants have the potential to result in a film, sheen or discoloration of the surface of the water surface, or a sludge or emulsion, to be deposited beneath the surface of the water if they are released into the water.

Under normal operating conditions (e.g. minimal leakage from operating equipment) the use of a product that has the potential to sheen or leaves a surface film is unlikely to result in an effect being observed. However, if a significant amount of lubricant is leaked into the sea resulting from machinery failure, then a sheen or film is likely to be observed, alerting the vessel operator to the equipment malfunction.

Choosing a lubricant that sheens provides a visual indication to a vessel operator that a discharge has occurred and therefore requires reporting. It also has the advantage of alerting them to the fact that a piece of equipment may have malfunctioned and require repair. It is therefore acceptable for lubricants that have potential to “sheen” to be used in applications that come under the VGP.

Lubricants that contain high molecular weight base oils that sink if spilled into water, may not leave a sheen or film on the waters’ surface. Due to their high molecular weight, however, they may be slow to biodegrade, therefore not meeting the definition of an EAL under the VGP.

Choosing a lubricant that does not sheen, but has the potential to create a film or discoloration on the water or a sludge or emulsion in the water, may leave the vessel operator open to charges of failure to report a spill should a discharge take place that is not reported as required.

For equipment where failure will not result in a significant spill of lubricant e.g. wire ropes, there is no benefit from selecting a product that sheens. In this case, a sheen on the water surface will not alert the operator to a spill, therefore the use of a non-sheen product would be acceptable.

The full text of the permit along with an accompanying fact sheet is available from the EPA website http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/npdes/vessels/Vessel-General-Permit.cfm. The draft sVGP is also available on this website.

For any additional information please consult your local Castrol representative.

1. http://www.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/vgp_permit2013.pdf
2. If products do not have one of the labels above, they will be classified as environmentally acceptable if meeting the criteria set by EPA for biodegradation, bioaccumulation, and toxicity:

  • To be classified as “biodegradable” a lubricant must contain at least 75% (w/w) of a constituent substance or constituent substances (only stated substances present above 0.10% shall be assessed) that each demonstrate either the removal of at least 70% of dissolved organic carbon, production of at least 60% of the theoretical carbon dioxide, or consumption of at least 60% of the theoretical oxygen demand within 28 days. Acceptable test methods to demonstrate biodegradability include: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Test Guidelines 301 A-F, 306 (marine), and 310, ASTM 5864, ASTM D-7373, OCSPP Harmonized Guideline 835.3110, and International Organization for Standardization 14593:1999. For lubricant formulations, the 10% (w/w) of the formulation that need not meet the above biodegradability requirements, up to 5% (w/w) may be non-biodegradable (but not bioaccumulative) while the remainder must be inherently biodegradable. For grease formulations, the 25% (w/w) of the formulation that need not meet the above biodegradability requirement, the constituent substances may be either inherently biodegradable or non-biodegradable, but may not be bioaccumulative. Acceptable test methods to demonstrate inherent biodegradability include: OECD Test Guidelines 302C (>70% biodegradation after 28 days) or OECD Test Guidelines 301 A-F (>20% but <60% biodegradation after 28 days).
  • “Not bioaccumulative” means the lubricant’s partition coefficient in the marine environment is log KOW <3 or >7 using test methods OECD 117 and 107 or its molecular mass > 800 Daltons.
  • “Minimally-toxic” means a substance must pass either acute (short term) or chronic (long term) toxicity tests. Acute tests must be carried out on 3 trophic levels and chronic on 2. Both marine and freshwater test methods are valid. Products can be assessed by either testing the fully formulated product and its main components or by testing each of the components in the formulation for their toxicity.

3. As measured in OECD 306 product level testing
4. Using OSPAR criteria for assessing bioaccumulation potential
5. As measured in ISO 10253 / ISO 14669