Coast Guard delays release of proposed towing vessel inspection rules

A longer-than-expected review process has delayed the release of the U.S. Coast Guard’s proposed inspection rules for tugboats, towboats and barges, with the public’s first look at the document not likely to occur until this spring at the earliest.

The Coast Guard had hoped the proposed rules would be unveiled in spring 2009. The draft is the product of nearly five years of talks involving the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC), a congressionally authorized group that includes industry representatives, shippers, port and terminal personnel, labor officials and the public.

The next step in the process — publication of the draft, or Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), in the Federal Register — is contingent upon approval of the document by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The agency, which had not received the draft from the Department of Homeland Security as of mid-January, has 90 days to review it and approve it.

A period of public comment will follow, the length of which will be stipulated in the document, said Dave Dolloff, marine transportation specialist for the Coast Guard and manager of the Towing Vessel Inspection rulemaking project. Comments can be submitted in writing or at public meetings.

Dolloff said the Coast Guard “will craft any subsequent rule in part from comments received from the public†and then implement the guidelines. He would not speculate on how long the comment period would be, or when the regulations would go into effect.

“It’s important that people actually read the proposal and not rely on hearsay,†Dolloff said. “I’ve already had cases where people have told me what the rules are going to be, and it hasn’t been determined.â€

While acknowledging that some towing industry representatives have been disappointed by the delay, Dolloff said others have stated their understanding that “it’s a complex rulemaking that takes time.†He said the Coast Guard decided to seek industry input before drafting a proposal instead of after the fact, which has delayed publication.

“The Coast Guard invested time up front working closely with TSAC, conducting a study and visiting towing vessels and towing companies,†he said. “We believe this will result in time saved on the back end. … The regulatory evaluation and subsequent review through several clearance levels has also added time to the project.â€

Jennifer Carpenter, senior vice president-national advocacy for the American Waterways Operators (AWO), said members of the trade group have been patient about the process but are looking forward to seeing the proposal.

“People recognize that this is something the industry wants, and we’ve been working cooperatively with the Coast Guard,†she said. “At the same time, there’s a real desire to get this on the street, see it and improve it. The Coast Guard has done its part; it’s not for a lack of trying.â€

Carpenter said she expected OMB to take the full 90 days to review the draft, followed by four or five months of public comment.

“Realistically, if it comes out this spring, the Coast Guard will still be getting comments into the third quarter, then take the comments into account,†she said. “If the rules are implemented before 2011, it would be a surprise.â€

Dana Teicheira, president of Tugboat Compliance Systems Inc., said some of his clients have already upgraded their technology in anticipation of the new regulations. Teicheira’s company offers Web-based software that allows operators to catalog and monitor training records, incident reports and mechanical information, as well as to set maintenance schedules and alert personnel when procedures are due.

“Companies that do not have safety management systems in place, mostly small and medium-sized companies, are just waiting to see what will happen,†he said. “They want to find out what the final rules will be before they take action.â€

Anne Davis Burns, vice president of public affairs and communications for the AWO, said TSAC recommended that the Coast Guard adopt a safety management system like the AWO’s Responsible Carrier Program, which places a heightened responsibility on shoreside management.

“We expect to see that in the proposed rule,†she said. “We also expect that the regulation will take a risk-based approach to inspection. AWO members have been anxiously awaiting the new regulation because they feel it will raise the bar of safety for the entire industry.â€

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff