Navigating US waters – interview

That patchwork of national, state, and local regulations is going to continue to challenge the industry.
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By Kate Kelley

Whilst tighter regulation may be a bug-bear for any Master, a system of scrutiny and compliance built on a unified command structure is in place for the protection of the ship owner, operator and charterer as much as it is for the public.

“I don’t think many people outside of the industry have any idea about the complexity of the regulations for shipping,” says Kate Kelley, Compliance Director at Witt O’Brien’s. “The average American doesn’t think about how much they depend on shipping. They only think of shipping when something goes wrong – and an image is tweeted.”

Enforcing safeguards is a challenge and the stringent US compliance regime isn’t going anywhere.

“That patchwork of national, state, and local regulations is going to continue to challenge the industry. In the US, even with the passage of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), you are going to continue to see some US State and port authorities have more stringent standards. Whether it is ballast water, greywater, sewage, etc., there is never going to be a fully-unified approach in the US.

“Likewise, globally more countries are moving to more stringent standards in areas like scrubber wash-water and biofouling. For an industry that depends on worldwide trade, the variability and complexity of global compliance will always be a challenge.”

Kate has some good advice for ship owners and operators calling at US ports:

Planning: make sure you have considered local requirements for the port you are calling. Several states have separate planning and coverage requirements that could take up to a month to process. Have as much notice as possible to help plan the logistics for routing: plan updates, waste disposal, ballast water management, fuel oil, etc.

Reporting: when something happens, it is always in your best interest to report the issue to the US Coast Guard, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the State as soon as possible. Whether it is an oil spill or an Emission Control Area (ECA) violation, reporting and cooperation is key for working with regulators in the US. It is always better to tell them what happened in your terms than for them to find out and come after you.

Record-keeping: documentation is key. Errors in routine documentation, like Oil Record Books, can cause major issues with USCG. Ensuring the crew understand what needs to be documented and how long records need to be maintained, can make calling the US a much smoother process.

It’s a question of juggling the good and the bad when it comes to perceptions: the public – so often driven by media headlines – but also those of ship-operators and regulators. According to Kate, there is still a lot of bad information out there.

“I’m always surprised when I still hear outdated assertions on US requirements, but it is definitely turning around. There are a lot of great resources for companies and good collaboration in the industry to make sure everyone has the information they need.”

“It is an industry that sees safety and environmental management as a critical part of their operation, and truly wants to know what they need to do to comply.


Kate provides technical support to vessel owners and operators on regulatory implementation issues such as the Vessel General Permit (VGP), ballast water management, OPA-90 and other US Coast Guard regulations.

Before working for Witt O’Brien’s, Kate was a regulator with the EPA.

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