First COIs issued as Coast Guard tracks Subchapter M compliance

Subchapter M 1

U.S. Coast Guard inspections for Subchapter M, the new regulations governing the towing industry, began well before the July 20 compliance deadline as many operators sought to get a jump on a process marked by years of uncertainty.

The first certificate of inspection (COI) under Subchapter M was issued on April 20 to Endeavor, an 80-foot, 4,200-horsepower assist and escort tugboat. It is owned by Marine Towing of Tampa, Fla., which operates five tugs in that Gulf Coast region.

“Fortunately, we got the first — that was great,” said Capt. Scott Moorhead, safety coordinator for Marine Towing. “For the small company that we are, to be up there with the big guys, that was kind of something.” Marine Towing also has sent the Coast Guard all of the necessary paperwork for the 5,000-hp Liberty and was waiting for its inspection to be scheduled.

In the month that followed, the Coast Guard issued the first Subchapter M certificate for an inland towboat to the 74-foot Sacred Heart, owned and operated by Marquette Transportation of Paducah, Ky. The first West Coast COI was issued to the 102-foot Crown Point, a towboat built in 2015 for Tidewater Transportation and Terminals of Vancouver, Wash. The first East Coast COI was earned by the 116-foot Brandywine, an articulated tug-barge (ATB) unit owned by Maryland-based Vane Brothers.

Towing companies have two options to comply with Subchapter M: annual Coast Guard inspections, or the use of a towing safety management system (TSMS) approved and verified by a third-party organization (TPO). Coast Guard and industry officials said that inspections under the new regimen will involve a learning process on both sides, and clear communication between all parties is crucial.

“This was the first regulatory-making process where it really was a collaboration with the industry throughout the development of the regulation,” which means the dialogue will continue as the new rules are applied, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Bohn, chief of the inspections division at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, Fla.

Under Subchapter M, 25 percent of a company’s fleet 26 feet in length or greater must obtain a COI by July 22, 2019, with 50 percent by July 20, 2020; 75 percent by July 19, 2021; and 100 percent by July 19, 2022. Single-vessel owners have until July 20, 2020, to get their certificate. The COI is good for five years, although vessels must be re-inspected by the Coast Guard or re-surveyed each year by a TPO.

The towboat Sharin K. maneuvers barges at Fort Defiance Park in Cairo, Ill., at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. As Subchapter M is adopted by the towing industry, operators are expressing concerns about uniform Coast Guard enforcement of the law’s provisions in different areas of the country.

Courtesy Al/Flickr

Getting it right from the start
The Coast Guard allowed the process to start early as an incentive for companies to use the TSMS option and also to obtain information about how the process will work, according to Lt. Amy Midgett, a spokeswoman at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“This gives Coast Guard marine inspectors and OCMIs (officers in charge, marine inspection) a chance to wade into the process ahead of the official start of the 25 percent annual phase-in period that commences on July 20 and identify potential shortfalls and communication gaps before the first 1,500 towing vessels apply for their COIs,” she said.

Moorhead said the reason his company sought an inspection so early was that it had been preparing for Subchapter M for years. When it became law in 2016, “I went through everything with a fine-toothed comb and examined everything that applied to us,” he said, adding that he was constantly in touch with Coast Guard officials. “I just kept asking questions and making little files and making notes” to ensure compliance.

Moorhead praised chief warrant officers Joel Reid and Sean Goodman of Sector St. Petersburg, who conducted the inspection of Endeavor. Moorhead said the message he got in this first inspection was that the Coast Guard “wants information and feedback. As Joel told me, ‘We want to get this right the first time. It’s not a dictate — let’s make sure we get this right.’”

As Subchapter M is adopted, there are concerns about whether it will be interpreted differently by OCMIs in different sectors. “There should be a baseline commonality from sector to sector that somebody can wave a wand at and say, ‘This is going to be the minimum standard,’” said Chris Parsonage, president of the Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau (TVIB), who believes there are exceptions and inconsistencies already coming up as the rule begins to be applied.

Pat Folan, a partner at Tug & Barge Solutions in Daphne, Ala., is working with client Norfolk Dredging of Chesapeake, Va., to make sure that the new regulations are interpreted consistently for dredger tenders. One issue involves a section of Subchapter M that specifically exempts “workboats that do not engage in commercial towing for hire, but may intermittently move a piece of equipment within a work site such as a dredging or construction site.”

“But the OCMIs have the power to say the tenders are exempt from Subchapter M or not,” Folan said. Some OCMIs say that dredge tenders can be used on a work site without a COI, and some OCMIs say that all towing vessels must have a COI in that port, with no work site exemption.

Vessel owners and operators who select the towing safety management system (TSMS) option for Subchapter M compliance must complete management and vessel audits. This is done through a third-party organization or group that can perform the work of a TPO.

Pat Rossi illustration

Folan said he is talking with numerous OCMIs and the Coast Guard’s Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise “to try to come up with a standard so that if they show up in a port, they don’t get shut down.”

There is leeway for local interpretation, according to Midgett. “The regulations were written to allow our operational commanders the flexibility to manage (the risks) unique to their areas of responsibilities,” she said. “One option available to them is to issue written guidance or advisories to address specific considerations of how Subchapter M applies in their geographic regions. Every captain of the port zone is different, and regional written guidance allows the local OCMIs to be as transparent as possible with industry.”

Midgett said the Coast Guard is working on concerns about different interpretations of the rules, and “local guidance will serve as a bridge until (headquarters) provides national guidance in those cases where national guidance is determined to be needed.”

Assessing the view from the water
Folan said he has seen a change in attitudes toward Subchapter M over the years. Mariners were initially wary of the regulations, he said, with management at many client companies wanting to start the process early. Now, “management is not so thrilled … and the captains and crew are much more accepting of it,” he said.

There remains a concern in the industry that the Coast Guard does not have enough inspectors to meet the needs of Subchapter M. “You have to realize that Congress hasn’t given them any money for this,” said Bob Russo, CEO of First Coast Maritime Academy in Jacksonville, Fla. “Companies have to understand that the Coast Guard has a limited number of inspectors.”

Bohn emphasized that companies should not wait to meet the fleet inspection percentages mandated by the specific dates. “The sooner, the better, in our opinion,” he said. “If everyone waits until the last minute, you could run into some resources conflict.”

Those involved in the rollout of Subchapter M stress that it is a collaborative process. “We are all in this together, learning,” Folan said. “As long as everyone keeps an open mind, I think it will go fine.”

“I think what is going to happen is that the industry and the Coast Guard will come to a working agreement here. There will be an understanding of what each wants and needs,” Russo said.

By Professional Mariner Staff