The drawn-out question of when the Ballast Water Management Convention will be enforced has obscured the equally crucial matter of how, as the managing director of a leading testing company makes clear
Chelsea Technologies managing director Brian Phillips has no doubt of his company’s capabilities. “We know more about photosynthetic activity in algae as a commercial company than anyone else in the world,” he asserted.
This is no idle boast, as the company is the leader in the scientific community when it comes to looking at algae in the ocean. Its equipment is used by nearly all the world's scientific institutes that look at algae for the purposes of global warming studies.
This expertise made the company's transition to ballast water testing equipment a fairly natural one. “I thought there was something we could do with ballast water," Mr Phillips said. “While I was in the process of looking at what we could do, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) came to me and said it was fed up with waiting for IMO to get its act together, and it was going to go its own way and start looking at samples on board vessels."
The USCG, though, did not have any instrumentation with which to test whether a ship's ballast water complied with legislation.
So it came up with a specification of equipment that could be used to achieve a cheap, simple test of what was going on with the ballast water on a ship.
Mr Phillips took up the story: “We responded to that with an input that was heavily based on our work over the last 20 years on algae in the ocean. They responded by awarding us a contract.”
Unlike others, though, Chelsea Technologies did not go down the route of a fluorometry-based device operating in the 10-50 micron range. It was believed that these were tests that could be performed quickly and reasonably easily.
“We looked at the problem and decided these wouldn’t do the job,” explained Mr Phillips. “We went a completely different route. We decided PAM fluorometry and other methods would not be sufficient. You would need to do at least as accurate a test on board as you can do in a laboratory.”
The test done in laboratories then and now is the FDA stain technique: essentially a sample is taken and put under a microscope, and the cells counted. “We decided we wanted something that was equivalent or better than what could be done in a lab, and that is what we responded to the USCG with,” said Mr Phillips. “I must admit they were a bit dubious about it at first. But once they had a look at the technology behind it and realised it would work, they accepted it and awarded us a contract."
That was in 2013. In 2015, Chelsea Technologies sent prototype instruments to the USCG, which it has evaluated with positive results. The existence of effective, accurate and meaningful onboard ballast water testing is increasingly crucial, believes Mr Phillips. “The market wants more than someone to go on board a ship and offer an indication of whether the ballast water has passed its test or not. Out in Saudi at the moment, everything is happening that I predicted. That’s not to say that I’m particularly clever, but it’s obvious that once you have ships going around in danger of being fined and impounded and told to go and take their ballast water elsewhere, the first question a captain is going to ask is whether the readings can be trusted. How do they believe it’s accurate?”
The problem, as Mr Phillips pointed out, is that other systems rely to some extent on certain assumptions rather than on the nature of the sample itself. He explained: “We are working with a very, very varied biology in many forms. Assumptions are being made about what you are going to be measuring. If you accept the a priori knowledge as accurate, you could say your results are accurate and meaningful. But we would argue that that there’s no way you can say that. That’s why we’ve gone to the trouble and expense to come up with a method that completely ignores a priori information and does a direct estimation of cell count itself. We don’t make any assumptions about algae type or differential cell size or masking of cells – we just count them.”
Mr Phillips added that “to have reached this stage with no accredited means of testing is extraordinary. It astounds me as much as anyone.”
Chelsea Technologies is seeking to change that situation, Mr Phillips explained: “What we’ve been doing in recent times is a lot of work to prove that FastBallast does what it says on the tin. We feel that the industry won’t accept anyone’s test on board a vessel until such time as there are a set of third-party protocols that will allow class societies to accredit the box in question.”
This could happen more quickly than people think, as Chelsea Technologies has already initiated discussions with accreditation authorities. These will result in tests putting systems through a process of third-party protocol testing.
Mr Phillips stated that "it’s all working in our favour because the question’s now being asked as to why one system works better than others.”
Even with agreed-on testing standards, though, Mr Phillips believes it is inevitable that appeals against onboard tests carried out by port state authorities will be a theme over the next few years.
“Appeals are inevitable,” he asserted. “It’s going to lead to situations of tension between port authorities, testing facilities and shipowners because, a, the results are not what they want to hear, and b, the first point of call in any appeal will be to look at the method of testing being used – which I think is very good for us. The spotlight will be on what these onboard tests are actually giving you and how they’re arriving at those conclusions.”
Mr Philips believes that there will of necessity be a ‘period of grace’ during which the new regulations will not be stringently enforced. “I think that’s definitely what will have to happen. There is bound to be a period of time during which the meaningfulness and accuracy of these systems is assured before port state authorities can impound and fine vessels," he concluded.