Coast Guard: Salvage industry must wait for proposed standards.

“It’s time to get on with it,” declared J. Arnold Witte Sr., president of the American Salvage Association, at the National Maritime Salvage Conference held in Alexandria, Va., in September. “Get this regulation passed or throw it away.”

The Coast Guard’s salvage standards have been in the works for about 10 years. In May 2002, the Coast Guard released its proposed rules and invited comment from the industry.

The salvage industry liked what it saw. The proposed rules would require marine transporters of petroleum products to develop plans demonstrating that they have lined up the salvage equipment and expertise that would be needed to respond to a casualty.

Witte called the proposed rules “fair, reasonable and logical.” He said they would serve to create “a regulatory framework to make sure emergency response is better than it has been before.”

The Coast Guard, however, is not ready just yet to give the proposed rules the force of law. Capt. Joe Saboe, chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Response, heads the group in charge of writing the rules. He told the conference that the press of other issues, maritime security in particular, has caused the delays in the issuance of the salvage standards. And he gave the industry scant reason to hope that the standards will be issued soon.

“It could be a matter of months. It could be a matter of years,” Saboe said.

The issue is of great concern to salvage companies. In the last couple of decades serious marine casualties have been declining steadily. Fewer casualties mean less work for the salvage industry.

People like Witte view the new standards as the salvation of the industry. Ship operators would have to demonstrate to the Coast Guard that they would have salvage assets available to them in an emergency. That means the shipowners would have to reach agreements with the industry to have those assets available and ready to respond when needed.

The concept is similar to the provisions of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA ’90) that require shipowners to have available the resources needed to respond to an oil spill.

“We all agree that the number of casualties is down. That doesn’t mean we don’t need prevention and don’t need response,” Witte said. “If we do not have the support of a regulatory framework that allows us to continue, we will dwindle away.”

He noted that owners and operators of ships complained about costs when OPA ’90 was proposed. The result of the law, however, is that the marine transportation industry spent money on prevention that has paid dividends in lower accident rates and reduced environmental damage. He argued that the investment generated by the salvage standards would have a similar beneficial effect.

“We need not revisit the same arguments that were made 13 years ago unless we are ready to do away with OPA ’90,” Witte said.

Saboe explained that his office has simply not had enough time to finalize the salvage standards. He noted that he is responsible for overseeing four different sets of regulations. Right now maritime security is getting most of the attention.

“This is one package among many,” he said of the salvage standards.

Witte made his plea for the salvage standards as his term as president of the salvage association was coming to an end. He is president of Donjon Marine Co., based in Hillside, N.J.

The incoming president of the association is Richard Fairbanks, president of Titan Maritime LLC, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

By Professional Mariner Staff