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EPA Vessel General Permit

A US District court ruled in March 2005 that the permitting exemption for “discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel” was not legal and would soon cease to exist.


EPA issued the Vessel General Permit (VGP) in December 2008 in advance of the expiration of the exemption so that ships could continue to legally operate in U.S. waters.


We are providing this webpage to assist vessel operators and the public understand the VGP. However, no summary can substitute for studying the VGP and related documents, especially if you are a vessel operator.


EPA Vessel General Permit information 

Vessel General Permit Contact Information


Three guidance documents and one focus sheet are available.

Who must apply?

  • Operators of vessels greater than or equal to 300 gross registered tons or capable of discharging greater than 8 cubic meters of ballast water must submit a Notice of Intent (NOI) to EPA. Table 1 of the VGP lists deadlines for NOI submittal. NOIs for existing vessels are due September 19, 2009 or immediately upon transfer of ownership/operation.

  • All vessels meeting the eligibility requirements in the VGP (about 30,000) were automatically covered on December 19, 2008 when EPA issued the VGP. These vessels have automatic VGP coverage up to the deadline for NOI submission. Any operator of a vessel required to submit an NOI as described below who fails to submit an NOI by the deadline in Table 1 (see Appendix E of the VGP) will lose VGP coverage.

How to apply for coverage

Exempt vessels

  • Fishing and commercial vessels under 79 feet long are exempt from needing VGP coverage for a 2-year moratorium (extended to December 18, 2013 - see July 30, 2010 in the Vessel General Permit History below). Certain discharges from these vessels, such as ballast water, are not exempt even during the moratorium. Recreation vessels and all military vessels are exempt forever or until the law changes.

Where does the VGP apply?

  • VGP requirements only extend 3 nautical miles from shore leaving some Washington State waters uncovered. However, state Water Quality Standards (chapter 173-201A WAC) apply and the Department of Ecology has enforcement authority in all state waters.

  • The state constitution defines state waters as extending further than three miles in some places.  Article XXIV of the Washington State Constitution defines the state boundary with Canada in marine waters to run along the 49th parallel from land west to longitude 123 degrees, 19 minutes, 15 seconds west (about midway from shore to Vancouver Island) and from there along the international boundary to a point equidistant between Bonnilla Point on Vancouver Island and the Tatoosh Island lighthouse.  The state boundary then runs south from this point.  A map is available here: state waters map

Permit fees

  • EPA is not charging permit fees but seems to envision states becoming delegated during the first permit term and assessing fees to pay for implementation of vessel permitting and enforcement in the future.

What’s required?USS Constitution

  • The VGP usually incorporates existing USCG requirements in those areas (blackwater, graywater, ballast water, bilge water, etc.) where the USCG traditionally regulates ships.

  • The VGP contains a narrative requirement to meet water quality standards.

  • The VGP contains technology-based effluent limits for just about all vessel discharges except for blackwater.

  • Blackwater is not covered because CWA § 502(6) leaves vessel sewage out of the definition of pollutant and CWA § 312 gives authority to regulate vessel sewage to the Coast Guard.

  • The VGP specifies open ocean exchange as the standard requirement for ballast water management and provides for ballast water treatment only on an “experimental” basis.

  • The VGP regulates ballast water management during coastal voyages and management of ballast tank sediments more stringently than current Coast Guard requirements.

  • The VGP regulates 26 types of discharges including deck runoff, deck and hull washdown, bilgewater, ballast water, hull coating leachate and underwater hull cleaning, fire fighting foam, boiler blowdown, cathodic protection, chain locker effluent, hydraulic and lubricating fluids, desalinization brine, exhaust scrubber wastewater, graywater and graywater with sewage, and others.

  • The VGP contains class-specific requirements for large cruise ships, medium cruise ships, large ferries, barges, oil tankers, and research vessels.

Additional requirements specific to Washington State

  • 28 states, Tribes, and Territories added requirements to the permit through the CWA 401 certification process; however, Washington State neither granted 401certification nor denied 401certification to the VGP. As a consequence, the VGP is effective in this state but contains no explicit requirements specific to this state. See the Washington State letter.

  • The VGP requires compliance with applicable state laws and regulations (VGP section 1.11) and state water quality standards (VGP section 2.3.1).  The state Department of Ecology (Ecology) is responsible for interpreting and enforcing these state laws and regulations either through the VGP and EPA or on our own.

  • Because on several occasions the USCG, vessel operators, and public questioned us on our interpretation of the VGP and state law concerning repainting load lines, oily water separator discharges, and graywater discharges, we prepared guidances specific to these areas.  The guidances are available here: graywater guidance, oily water separator guidance, load line painting guidance, graywater focus sheet.

  • The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) regulates ballast water discharges to state waters.  (See contact information and links to the WDFW websites below.)   Ecology evaluates the environmental safety of those ballast water treatment systems that use biocides and makes recommendations to WDFW.  We have completed evaluations and made recommendations on: 

Enforcement authority

  • EPA has primary enforcement authority but few resources and will depend on states and others to help find violations and build cases. EPA is negotiating a cooperative agreement with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) for VGP enforcement.

  • States and citizens have the ability to sue vessel operators or EPA pursuant to CWA § 505 if EPA does not address permit violations by vessels covered under the VGP.

  • Routine violations must be handled through a permittee implemented inspection and corrective action process.

  • Training Presentation for Vessel Operators

Vessel General Permit History

January 1999 Interested parties (including Northwest Environmental Advocates) submitted a petition to EPA asking for repeal of its regulation (40 CFR. 122.3(a)) excluding discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels from needing an NPDES permit. The main concern of the petition was ballast water.
September 2003 EPA denied the petition.
December 2003 The petitioners and others filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court.
March 30, 2005 The U.S. District Court ruled that the EPA regulation excluding discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel from NPDES permitting exceeded the Agency’s authority under the CWA.
September 18, 2006 The U.S. District Court issued an order revoking 40 C.F.R. 122.3(a) as of September 30, 2008 at which time all discharges from vessels would be subject to NPDES permits.
June 17, 2008 EPA published a FR notice proposing to issue on September 30, 2008 a Vessel General Permit (VGP) for commercial vessels and large recreational vessels and a Recreational General Permit (RGP) for recreational vessels less than 79 feet.
July 23, 2008 The Ninth Circuit upheld the District Court decision and the September 30, 2008 vacatur date.
July 31, 2008 The Water Quality Program submitted 20 comments to EPA on the content of the VGP along with a cover letter expressing concern over permit issuance authority issues.
July 29, 2008 Senate bill S. 2766 (Clean Boating Act of 2008) was signed into law and provides that recreational vessels shall not be subject to the requirement to obtain an NPDES permit. It instead directs EPA to evaluate recreational vessel discharges, develop management practices for appropriate discharges, and the USCG to promulgate regulations requiring those management practices.
July 31, 2008 Senate bill S. 3298 was signed into law imposing a two-year moratorium during which time neither EPA nor states can require NPDES permits for any vessels less than 79 feet and commercial fishing vessels of any length. It also directs EPA to conduct a study of vessel discharges and issue a report to Congress within 15 months (draft report published March 2010 - see below). The moratorium does not apply to ballast water, trash rubbish or garbage, or any other discharge considered by EPA or a state to contribute to violation of a water quality standard or to pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.
August 31, 2008 The District Court extended the date of vacatur and permit issuance to December 19, 2008.
December 19, 2008 EPA issues the VGP and the U.S. District Court extends the exemption for vessel discharges until February 6, 2009. EPA neither withdraws the VGP nor allows the deadlines to be reinterpreted in light of the extension of the vessel discharge exemption.
January 12, 2009 The Northwest Environmental Advocates petitions the Ninth Circuit Court to require EPA to revise the VGP to require ballast water treatment since not doing so is obviously not protective of national waters. Many other industry and environmental groups are known to have also appealed. Many states are being sued over state-specific VGP conditions. All states which banned graywater discharges have been sued.
February 6, 2009 EPA reissues the VGP to include 401 certifications and conditions from AK and HI, to fix typographical errors, and to delete conditions from states (IL, NJ, and CA) having second thoughts.
June 8, 2009 EPA’s Vessel eNOI (Notice of Intent) went online 11 days early to allow operators of vessels greater than 300 gross tons or capable of carrying more than 8 cubic meters of ballast water to notify EPA that they are seeking coverage under the VGP. Only these larger vessels are required by the VGP to submit NOIs. Other commercial vessels ≥ 79 feet (and smaller vessels not exempted by Senate bill S. 3298 – see July 31, 2008 above) in length receive coverage under the VGP automatically without having to submit an NOI.
August 28, 2009 The United States Coast Guard (USCG) proposes in the Federal Register to establish national ballast water discharge standards (BWDS) and amend the process for ballast water management system (BWMS) approval. The deadline for comments is November 27, 2009. The proposed phase-1 BWDS is the same as the current International Maritime Organization (IMO) ballast water standard and the phase-2 BWDS is 1,000 times lower than IMO. USCG will conduct a practicability review prior to implementing phase-2. Crude oil tankers and military vessels are not exempt. The phase-1 BWDS must be met by vessels constructed on or after January 1, 2012 and existing vessels have until 2014 or 2016 (depending on vessel size) to meet the phase-1 BWDS. The phase-2 BWDS must be met by vessels constructed on or after January 1, 2016 and existing vessels have until the first dry dock scheduled after January 1, 2016 or five years after installing a BWMS meeting the phase-1 BWDS (whichever is later and assuming that the original BWMS installation occurred prior to January 1, 2016).
September 19, 2009 Deadline for submitting an NOI. Vessels greater than 300 gross tons or capable of carrying more than 8 cubic meters of ballast water lose coverage on this day unless EPA has received an NOI.
September 28, 2009 USCG public hearing in Seattle on proposed ballast water standards and process.
November 27, 2009 Deadline for commenting on USCG proposed standards for ballast water and approval process for treatment. To comment go to, and enter docket # USCG-2001-10486.
March 2010 EPA publishes the draft report on impacts of discharges from fishing vessels and small commercial vessels. The report is available at:
June and August 2010 EPA published technical and issue papers on approaches to setting ballast water discharge standards for living organisms and on the availability and performance of ballast water treatment.
July 30, 2010 President Obama signed Senate Bill S. 3372 to extend the moratorium from July 31, 2010 to December 18, 2013 exempting all incidental discharges, except ballast water, from commercial fishing vessels and non-recreational vessels less than 79 feet from having to obtain a Clean Water Act permit.  This date coincides with the expiration of EPA's current VGP.  The extension of the moratorium provides EPA with the time needed to consider the impacts of incidental discharges, develop appropriate discharge limits, and provide the necessary permit coverage if needed. The extension also gives Congress additional time to consider this issue and determine what regulatory approach might best control discharges from fishing and smaller commercial vessels.
December 15, 2010 EPA holds a national listening session to collect suggestions from the public on improving the VGP in its next issuance.
February 11, 2011 The EPA and USCG signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining cooperation in enforcing the VGP. The Commandant of the USCG distributed guidance and a checklist for personnel to use in expanding inspections to cover VGP compliance. See the MOU and USCG guidance.
March 8, 2011 EPA and environmental groups settled the appeal of VGP ballast water provisions. See the agreement. EPA agreed to:
  • Publish the Draft Next VGP in November 2011 and begin the ESA consultation process no more than 30 days later.
  • Issue a final VGP in November 2012 to go into effect on January 1, 2014 and expire after 4 years.
  • Provide states with at least 6 months for CWA § 401 certification actions.
  • Facilitate regional (e.g. Pacific states) communication and coordination between states prior to and during the CWA § 401 certification process.
  • Include technology-based and/or water quality-based numeric effluent limits for concentrations of organisms in ballast water discharges.
  • Include in the numeric limits for ballast water discharges components for macrofauna/zooplankton, phytoplankton, and indicator microbes.
  • Include narrative effluent limits instead of numeric effluent limits for organisms in ballast water discharges only if the EPA determines—in accordance with CFR 122.44(k)(3)—that numeric limits are not feasible to calculate.
  • Include monitoring requirements in the VGP and explain in the fact sheet the reasonable potential determination and limit setting process.
  • Rely on a report from the National Academy of Sciences on approaches to setting ecologically protective numeric limits and a report from EPA’s Science Advisory Board on the availability and performance of existing ballast water treatment technologies. The reports are due May 31, 2011.
May 16, 2011 USCG announces that they have a draft National Ballast Water Discharge Standard under internal review. It will soon be sent to OMB for interagency review. At that time, OMB will post a summary on its website: The planned FR publication date for the rule has been extended to summer 2011 from the original December 2010 target.
June 2, 2011 EPA announces the development of a system for electronic submission of the One-Time Permit Report required in section 4.4.4 of the VGP. These reports are due between 30 months and 36 months after obtaining permit coverage. Electronic submission of the report promises to be quicker and easier. Minor complications with the development of the system have delayed the release, but EPA expects to have it functioning with a few weeks. EPA recommends checking the website at for updates on the status of the electronic submission system.
June 3, 2011 USCG announces the release of a report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on approaches to setting ecologically protective numeric limits and a report from EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) on the availability and performance of existing ballast water treatment technologies. These reports are mentioned in the March 8, 2011 entry above on the VGP settlement agreement. The NAS report on setting ecologically protective numeric limits is available. See the document. The SAB report on ballast water treatment technologies is available.  See the document. Both reports are less conclusive than hoped.


Vessel General Permit Contacts

US EPA Headquarters Ryan Albert
Vessel Web Page
Robin Danesi
EPA Region 10 Derek Schruhl
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Robert Edwardson
Tammy Davis (ADF&G Invasive Species Program)
California Water Board Dominic Gregorio
Kim Ward
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Annette Leibe
Sally Puent
Washington State Department of Ecology Randall Marshall

Other Vessel Related Contacts and Links

Washington Department of Ecology Spills Program Sean Orr
Department of Ecology Spills Web Page
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Aquatic Invasive Species Program (including ballast water and ship/boat hulls) Allen Pleus
WA State Department of Fish & Wildlife Ballast Water Program
WA State Department of Fish & Wildlife Aquatic Nuisance Species
Boat Sewage and Pumpout Stations