April 3, 2006

1996 London Protocol now in force, with stronger rules to prevent marine pollution

A surge of ratifications in recent months, with Mexico becoming the final required signatory in February, has brought the 1996 London Protocol officially into force as of March 24, 2006. The 1996 Protocol provides a stronger set of international rules designed to prevent marine pollution resulting from the at-sea disposal of wastes and other materials.

It represents a major change of approach to the question of how to regulate the use of the sea as a depository for waste materials by essentially prohibiting ocean dumping, except for materials on an approved list.

This contrasts with the previous London Convention 1972, an international treaty limiting the discharge of wastes generated on land and disposed of at sea. The Convention, to which 81 nations have signed on as parties, generally permitted dumping of wastes at sea, except for those materials on a banned list.

With the required number of ratifications (26) now in place, the 1996 London Protocol (officially titled the 1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter) replaces the London Convention 1972. States can still be a party to either the London Convention 1972 or the 1996 Protocol, or both, however.

As a separate agreement that modernized and updated the Convention following a detailed review initiated in 1993, the Protocol reflects the overall environmental protection goals emanating from the 1992 Earth Summit. It introduces the precautionary approach as a general obligation, requiring that "appropriate preventive measures" be taken when there is reason to believe that wastes introduced into the marine environment are likely to cause harm.

The Protocol also states that "the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution" and it emphasizes that contracting parties are to act in such a way that the implementation of the Protocol will not result in pollution simply being transferred from one part of the environment to another.

In addition, the 1996 Protocol provides for wider geographical coverage, as it governs storage of wastes in the seabed, as well as the abandonment, or toppling, of offshore installations. Although a signatory country's internal waters are excluded from the dumping provisions under both the Convention and the Protocol, parties to the Protocol have the option to apply its rules to their internal waters if they wish.

The Protocol contains better links to other international environmental agreements developed since 1972. Through its ban on export of wastes for dumping purposes, for example, the Protocol provides a link to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

The Protocol places more emphasis on compliance than the Convention, focusing, for example, on whether a party has complied with its key provisions and on the effectiveness of the party's policies to protect the marine environment.

Article 11 of the Protocol calls for a meeting of the signatory parties no less than two years after its entry into force, to establish procedures and mechanisms necessary to assess and promote compliance. Initial work has already begun to develop these procedures and mechanisms.

Canada has been a party to the Protocol since May 15, 2000, implementing its obligations through the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and its regulations.

The parties to the 1996 Protocol will be invited to attend their first meeting under the Protocol from October 30 to November 3, 2006, in conjunction with the 28th Consultative Meeting of the Parties to the London Convention, to be held the same week.

One of the first key issues for discussion under the 1996 Protocol is likely to be a review of the compatibility of CO2 capture and storage in sub-seabed geological structures, as part of a suite of measures to tackle the challenge of climate change and ocean acidification.

In preparation for the discussion on how best to facilitate and/or regulate such activities under the Protocol (and the London Convention), a meeting will be held at the International Maritime Organization offices next month to develop options to clarify and, if appropriate, amend the Protocol.

There is a distinction between the London Protocol, the London Convention and another important international treaty relating to marine pollution, the MARPOL Convention. The latter covers all the technical aspects of pollution from ships except the dumping of wastes by ships and pollution arising from exploration and exploitation of sea-bed mineral resources.

Careful attention has been given to distinguish between the operational discharges by vessels (MARPOL) and dumping of wastes from vessels (London Convention). The prohibition of all incineration at sea under the London Protocol, does not affect the incineration of shipboard garbage; this is allowed under Annex V of MARPOL, provided all conditions of that Annex are met.

A 1978 Protocol to the MARPOL Convention applies to all types of ships. It governs the design and equipment of ships; establishes a system of certificates and inspections; and requires countries to provide reception facilities for the treatment of oily wastes and chemicals collected from ships.

Annexes to MARPOL set out measures for ships and administrations to prevent pollution by oil (Annex I); noxious liquid substances in bulk (Annex II); harmful substances in packaged form (Annex III); sewage (Annex IV); garbage (Annex V); and air pollution from ships (Annex VI).

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the United Nations agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. More information about the IMO, the London Convention, the 1996 London Protocol and MARPOL is available on the IMO and Convention Web sites, www.imo.org/, www.londonconvention.org/.

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