On a hot and summer evening in 1988, a group of researchers from the University of Windsor boarded a small vessel on Lake St. Clair to do a local survey of freshwater species. Upon inspecting a bucket of rocks from the bottom, a young graduate student discovered an unknown species that would soon become so prolific throughout the Great Lakes that it would threaten water quality and health of Great Lakes fisheries, and would cost businesses, governments, and landowners over $100 million annually.
The tiny creature in the bucket was none other than the zebra mussel, a native of Russia. Travelling as a stowaway in the ballast of a cargo ship, it had been emptied into Canadian waters according to the standard and necessary practice in order to balance a ship with cargo. The zebra mussel wasn’t the first species to migrate in this way. Scientists have known about the problem since the early 1900s. But it became the wake-up call for Canada and governments worldwide concerning the dire consequences of letting non-native species invade their waters. Shortly afterwards, Canada and Australia brought their concerns to the attention of the International Marine Organization (IMO), and thus began a 30-year process of complex negotiations among IMO nation states to adopt global regulations to address ballast water transfers.
In order for the regulations—known as the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments (the Convention)—to come into force, they must be ratified by 30 nation states, representing 35 per cent of world merchant shipping tonnage. The Convention currently sits one or two nations short of making this happen. The most significant holdout is the United States, mainly due to concerns related to the certification process used to approve ballast water treatment equipment. To this day, cargo vessels continue to dump untreated ballast water in the Great Lakes (treated water is supported, but flushing with sea water is also permitted). It’s just a matter of time before the next devastating invasion occurs.
In response, London, Ont.-based Trojan Technologies, has developed a technology solution that is set to revolutionize the industry and capture a significant portion of this greater than $15 billion market (by some estimates, a $34 billion from 2009 – 2020). Trojan has embarked on a journey to convince the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Congress that the best available science supports the use of UV treatment, and that Trojan’s purpose-built ballast water solution is the most effective and energy-efficient technology in the market to prevent future invasions from occurring.
A way down southern Ontario
To understand Trojan Technologies’ position in the world of ballast water treatment, it’s important to understand their roots in ultra violet (UV) water and wastewater treatment. The company was founded in 1976 by a young entrepreneur, Hank Vander Laan, a London Ont. native, who had the foresight to buy the patent for UV treatment of water from a small company which made metal toolboxes.
“When you live in rural areas and drink from a well, there is a pretty good chance that your water will be contaminated at some point in time,” said Trojan’s president and CEO, Marv DeVries. As DeVries explained, Vander Laan understood that UV could be used to treat well water for households use, and the company later expanded this concept to apply UV treatment for both municipal drinking water and wastewater. The groundbreaking leap occurred when they set up their very first open-channel UV disinfection system in Tillsonburg, Ont. With some pioneering scientific work done in partnership with Environment Canada, the company tested a system that would disinfect wastewater using the existing treatment plant setup, by installing UV lamps within open channels. “Before this, all wastewater treatment plants were using chlorine to disinfect their effluent. Tillsonburg was the first open channel UV installation in the world [to be] set up so that there were two halves of the plant, where chlorine and UV could be run side by side. […] It proved that a very high degree of disinfection could be achieved using UV,” DeVries said.
Fast forward 40 years, and Trojan Technologies has over 750 employees with over $250 million in revenue per year, and the company is approaching 10,000 municipal installations on six continents including Iqaluit, Lhasa, Tibet, and Moscow. “About 50 per cent of all wastewater treatment systems in North America are now disinfected with UV and of those, about 70 per cent use a Trojan system,” said DeVries. The company has also diversified, with five related companies focused on UV disinfection, water filtration, treatment chemicals, and a sixth—Trojan Marinex—focusing exclusively on ballast water treatment.
The company’s history and evolution have been instrumental to its current position in ballast water because for over 30 years, the team have been aggressively improving the treatment capacity, energy efficiency, and decreasing the footprint of UV systems to meet the needs of municipalities. “If you take a large vessel like a supertanker, it will actually have an intake pipe that might be three feet in diameter,” said DeVries. “You are treating as much water as a medium sized city—in terms of flow rate, about the same as the City of London.” The treatment system must also be extremely compact, and the energy requirements of a conventional system are simply not available on a ship. To address these limitations, Trojan has developed a system that uses less than half of the power of any other UV system on the market. As well, using UV eliminates the need to handle and dispose of many chemicals—an advantage for public safety, the environment, ballast corrosion, and other limiting factors.
IMO versus the U.S. Coast Guard
For nearly 60 years, the IMO has convened member nations (now totalling 170) in order to promote marine safety and pollution prevention, as an established body of the United Nations. For the last 30 years, IMO nations have been working to develop regulations for ballast water management to prevent the spread of invasive species. They have succeeded in adopting guidelines, but have fallen short of legally-binding rules for ship owners, largely because of a difference between the recommended approach by the U.S. Coast Guard and the remaining IMO nations that occurred in 2009/2010. The split is particularly troubling for the shipping industry, because once the Convention is ratified, all ships will be required to implement a ballast water management plan that is consistent with the rules the next time they dock for maintenance.
“This equipment is not cheap,” said Christian Williamson, Trojan Technologies’ senior vice president who is working on the ballast water issue. “It is one of the most expensive pieces of equipment that gets installed on a vessel. From a shipowner’s perspective, it’s a really big deal to get it right when they purchase the equipment, because they expect it to last the entire life of the vessel, which can be greater than twenty years,” he said. At present, only about 5,000 vessels have procured equipment and about 2,000 have installed it. Yet, the estimate of the number of ships that will need to respond within five years of when the decision is made is something in the magnitude of 30,000 to 50,000 vessels.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s intentions with their independent standard was to ensure the standard was more robust and reliable—to prevent some countries from exploiting loopholes while gaining certification on measures such as data collection and laboratory testing. Williamson said that many of the Coast Guard’s changes to the IMO Convention are prudent and welcomed. In fact, Trojan has proceeded to adopt many of the measures their own testing of the equipment to ensure it will meet the highest standards.
But the sticking issue lies in a particular test method that is needed to quantify the effect of water treatment methods on phytoplankton (the class of single cell microbes that are 10-15 micrometres in size). To certify equipment, the IMO has utilized a method known as MPN (Most Probable Number), whereas the U.S. Coast Guard has recommended utilizing another method known as Vital Stains. Each method is used to determine whether new treatment technologies are “capable of removing, or rendering harmless or killing organisms,” or in the case of the IMO, whether the organisms are still “viable,” meaning, able to reproduce.
“The position that the U.S. has had is, ‘you need to kill the organisms’,” said Williamson. For Trojan, this detail is crucial because the UV system does not actually kill the organisms instantly; rather, it damages their cells so that they can no longer reproduce. The MPN method measures an organisms’ ability to reproduce. “Organisms can’t invade, if they can’t reproduce,” said Williamson. This has become such a big issue in the U.S. that the issue was discussed at a congressional hearing in late April. There is also a body of science, including some highly respected new research, that suggests that the Vital Stain method endorsed by the U.S. Coast Guard is not suitable for providing “reliable and repeatable” results, and that the MPN method is the best method available.
John Cullen, a professor in the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie University is one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of UV on the marine environment. He has also recently published research that would suggest that the MPN method is preferable to the Coast Guard’s vital stains method.
Cullen said that he first encountered vital stains 30 years ago while collaborating with Professor Hugh Macintyre in Maine. “We were using them to monitor the viability of certain species in the dark. We found out in fairly short order that they worked very well for certain species, and for other species they didn’t work well at all. They were essentially giving us the wrong answer,” said Cullen.
Years later, Trojan Technologies approached Cullen’s group with an interest in testing the methods to quantify the effectiveness of their UV treatment systems, particularly for phytoplankton. “The questions were interesting and we had the relevant expertise, so we established a university-based research partnership that was ultimately co-funded by the NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada),” he said. The researchers have since published a peer-reviewed scientific study in a high impact journal that shows conclusively that the vital stain method used by the Coast Guard cannot be considered reliable and accurate for all species of phytoplankton. They also disproved some of the previous doubts regarding the MPN method employed by the IMO.
Cullen said, “When we began our research, the MPN method for counting viable cells in natural phytoplankton communities had a bad reputation, primarily because it was thought that many, if not most species of phytoplankton could not be cultured and thus would not be counted using the MPN method. But after we carefully reviewed the scientific literature on MPN over the past 60-plus years, we realized that the method was much less prone to error than previously thought.”
Having undergone trial testing over three years and its own peer-reviewed research to support the effectiveness of their UV treatment technology, Trojan was the first company in the world to submit its 3,000-page application for certification from the Coast Guard in March 2015. They were one of three companies to submit, including a Swedish firm, Alfa Laval and a Danish firm, DESMI. Given that Trojan had already secured IMO certification in 2014, winning U.S. approval would mean that the company would be able to provide the first universally certifiable option for ballast treatment. In spite of this, the company was denied certification, on account of the MPN/Vital Stains quandary.
“To date, no one in the world has received U.S. certification,” said Williamson. “So ship owners globally are in this quandary of needing to buy this equipment—especially with the IMO getting close to ratification—but not knowing if this equipment will be ultimately accepted for use in U.S. waters. It’s a nightmare situation for vessel owners.”
“Canada is a very important partner in this process because we share a border,” said DeVries. “The Great Lakes are ground zero for the issue of invasive species, and as such, Canada is obviously trying to maintain the relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard.” While Trojan, along with many other stakeholders in the world, are working closely with policy makers in the United States to help reverse the U.S. Coast Guard’s position on the MPN method, their hope is that the Canadian government will also show increased public support.