Coast Guard launches rare Board of Inquiry to study port safety

The U.S. Coast Guard Ports and Waterways Board of Inquiry launched in May is just the third of its kind since the early 1990s.
The U.S. Coast Guard Ports and Waterways Board of Inquiry launched in May is just the third of its kind since the early 1990s.
The U.S. Coast Guard Ports and Waterways Board of Inquiry launched in May is just the third of its kind since the early 1990s.

The U.S. Coast Guard has launched a formal inquiry to study how larger ships and increased congestion pose risks to critical infrastructure such as bridges, cargo terminals and power plants.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Wayne Arguin, the assistant commandant for prevention policy, will lead the Ports and Waterways Safety Board of Inquiry. He expects the body will gather best practices from ports around the United States and consider policy and regulatory changes.

In an interview with Professional Mariner, Arguin acknowledged the Dali incident in Baltimore that brought down the Francis Scott Key Bridge spurred the formal inquiry process.

“Ships have gotten a lot bigger, but has the infrastructure associated with handling those ships and the channels originally designed for ships built in the 70s and 80s been able to keep pace?” Arguin said in the interview.

“And if the ships are bigger,” he continued, “the consequences of a power failure or loss of maneuverability may be more consequential than the original designers of those ports envisioned.”

This type of formal Coast Guard inquiry is only the third of its kind since the early 1990s. Comprised of 10 Coast Guard members representing different parts of the service, it will have until May 31, 2025, to submit a report. Interim recommendations also could be released along the way.

One of the board’s first objectives is to establish which 10 U.S. ports will be the focus its inquiry. Arguin expects to select ports that represent a wide cross section of the American maritime industry. Once that list is chosen, likely by mid-June, the panel will begin an intensive review of each port and how risks to critical infrastructure are identified and managed.

There are already myriad regulations and broad state, local and federal oversight in place governing development in and around ports. Safety is one piece of a broader permitting review, but Arguin said those review processes typically are limited to a specific project or proposal.

He envisions taking a holistic look at entire port ecosystems and soliciting input from port leaders, state officials and federal agencies with the goal of understanding how ports are already identifying, managing and mitigating infrastructure risks. Arguin hopes the effort will create a flexible model that ports around the country can use to assess and proactively address risks associated with the continued growth and port expansion across the maritime sector.

“The ultimate goal is to develop a framework to identify risks that can be leveraged and repeated for threat mitigation purposes in other ports,” he said.

Changes in the shipping industry and the emergence of ever-larger, wider and deeper ships are underlying this review process. The largest containerships maxed out at about 10,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) as recently as the early 2000s, according to a report from Port Economics, Management and Policy. Now, the “Megamax” class of containerships can carry as much as 24,000 TEU.

The world’s largest containerships typically do not call on U.S. ports, but the ships that do stop in the U.S. are getting larger, too. Often, Arguin notes, these bigger, wider ships are transiting and berthing in ports initially designed when ships were much smaller.

The 984-foot, 10,000-TEU Dali struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, causing the bridge to collapse. Six highway contractors working on the bridge at the time died, and a seventh suffered serious injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board and Coast Guard are investigating the incident, although final conclusions are unlikely to come for a year or more. 

The Dali case created intense media coverage and raised questions from the public about how such a catastrophe was possible. Since the bridge collapse, there has been ample discussion in the media and elsewhere about possible regulatory changes that could help prevent a similar catastrophe.

Arguin acknowledged the incident raised public awareness about maritime commerce and the possible risks from shipping. He expects the board will consider, among other things, whether to require tugboat escorts through bridges and other critical infrastructure.

Industry groups are already following the process.

“The American Association of Port Authorities is glad to work closely with the United States Coast Guard every day to protect critical infrastructure, especially our ports and trade gateways,” said Cary Davis, the group’s president and CEO. “We support their decision to convene a Ports and Waterways Safety Board of Inquiry and look forward to the results.”

As of late May, the board was just beginning its work. The pace will accelerate later this spring once the list of 10 focus ports is established, and port visits will soon follow. Arguin emphasized that he wants to have candid conversations with local port officials, port users and others with a stake in safe and reliable maritime commerce.

“This is a collaborative effort. We have convened a Ports and Waterways Safety Board of Inquiry, but it is only as effective as its participants,” he said. “When we meet with port stakeholders, I’ll expect to get the unvarnished truth on what is good, bad and ugly. If we do not get unvarnished feedback, the report will not be as effective as it could be.”