Coast Guard posts final Subchapter M rule

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The following is the text of a blog by Cmdr. Jacqueline Twomey, commanding officer of the Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise (TVNCOE), on the Coast Guard Maritime Commons webpage:

(WASHINGTON) — What began as a short statement in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2004 will soon transform into a new subchapter in Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations. On Friday, the Office of the Federal Register posted notice of the rule to the public inspection webpage. Once published, Subchapter M will establish safety regulations governing the inspection and standards of towing vessels, while providing a safety management system compliance option.

Subchapter M will be the result of the consolidation and consideration of thousands of comments from owners and operators of towing vessels following the notice of proposed rulemaking, which was published in August 2011.

Sub M, as it is affectionately known, will apply to nearly all U.S.-flag towing vessels 26 feet or more in length and to all U.S.-flag towing vessels less than 26 feet in length that move a barge carrying a hazardous material in bulk. This Inspection of Towing Vessels rule will establish procedures and requirements for towing vessels that were made subject to inspection in 2004, and this rule will expand the number of inspected vessels, enhancing the safety of the waterway system.

Towing vessel safety and security are extremely important to our nation’s interests. Tens of thousands of towing vessel crewmembers work in a difficult and dangerous environment to accomplish the efficient movement of more than a billion tons of cargo each year. Analysis of five- year averages found that towing vessels and tows account for about 67.5 percent of all vessels involved in collisions, allisions, and groundings, about 29.8 percent of all commercial mariner deaths and injuries and about 30.2 percent of all chemical discharge incidents and oil spills greater than 100 gallons into navigable waters for calendar years 2010 through 2014. This rule is intended to provide minimum standards for safety to reduce marine casualties, avoid environmental damage and improve vessel and crew safety overall.

While this rule will take effect 30 days after publishing in the Federal Register, certain requirements (most notably the requirement to receive a certificate of inspection) will be phased in over several years.

When the final rule is published, the Coast Guard will provide resources and information, here on Maritime Commons, to ensure a seamless transition. The Coast Guard is committed to ensuring all stakeholders are informed and educated on the new requirements. In support of this, some of the resources to be provided include:

• In-person and online support (by the TVNCOE) to ensure vessel owners and operators understand the intricacies of these new standards;
• Guidance for third-party organizations;
• Guidance for operators;
• Ongoing FAQs (provided on the TVNCOE website);
• Plan review information (provided by the Marine Safety Center);
• Further information on compliance options.

We know this rule will mark a major change to how owners and operators of towing vessels have been conducting business. Our goal is to make the transition as smooth as possible, and provide as much guidance and support as needed as we work to implement Subchapter M. Our focus is on improving safety while providing the flexibility of effective compliance options, such as safety management systems. Subchapter M will help us get there.

Over the coming months, stay tuned to Maritime Commons for these topics and more. We’d love to hear from you on what information you would like to see when the final rule publishes. You can also continue the discussion by tweeting us questions on Twitter using #SubchapM.

If you have questions, please leave them in the comments below or reach out to us at

Editor's note: Subchapter M will be published in the Federal Register on June 20. To view a preview copy, click here.

By Professional Mariner Staff