Inspection requirements for tugs delayed by engine-fire concerns

The U.S. towing industry, which waited years to get a look at a U.S. Coast Guard proposal for mandatory inspections, faces yet another unexpected delay in the release of the final rule.

An additional proposal to require more fire protection on towing vessels is under consideration because of at least one recent fatal engine-room fire, a Coast Guard official said at the Port of New York and New Jersey Tug and Barge Committee’s Tug/Barge Day in August.

The new set of proposed regulations could delay the entire Subchapter M towing vessel inspection rule by a year and a half. The Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) will provide input on what additional fire prevention is reasonable.

“You can expect a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking due to several vessel fires that have happened around the country,” Kevin Miller, the Coast Guard’s First District towing vessel coordinator, told the Tug/Barge Day gathering in Staten Island, N.Y.

The extra proposed rule would be a “requirement for structural fire protection on new vessels,” Miller said. TSAC has been asked to “advise on what can be done on existing vessels that would not be cost-prohibitive.”

The Coast Guard is reviewing all reported tug fires in recent years as it ponders what type of additional fire protection may be necessary. In particular, investigators are studying the fatal March 2012 blaze aboard Patrice McAllister (PM #160) on Lake Ontario, Miller told the Staten Island audience. The engine-room fire killed the vessel’s 49-year-old chief engineer.

The Coast Guard defines structural fire protection as subdividing and safeguarding high-risk spaces — notably the engine room and galley — and minimizing the use of combustible materials in construction. The installation of thermal insulation in boundaries is encouraged. In addition, fire detection and means of escape are considered.

Miller said the Coast Guard is looking at the causes of the fires and the effectiveness of firefighting equipment, maintenance and training.

In an interview later, Miller said regulators are leaning more toward requirements for newbuilds. TSAC discussed the issue of fire protection and containment at its September meeting in Seattle. The Patrice McAllister blaze, which destroyed the 4,400-hp vessel, was a key factor but not the sole reason for the delay; there were several other vessel fires already on the Coast Guard’s mind before the March incident, Miller said.

“The Patrice McAllister was really the focal point … the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Miller said.

Subchapter M, which has been in the works for about eight years, will mandate towing vessel inspections for the first time. American Waterways Operators (AWO), a supporter of the broader effort, has not yet taken a position on whether more fire-protection rules are desirable, said Jennifer Carpenter, AWO’s senior vice president for national advocacy.

As a result of the TSAC discussion in September, the Coast Guard was asked to provide an accurate number of towing vessel fires it investigated.

“The Coast Guard has to better define the scope of the problem, and then we’ll look at it,” she said.

As a result of the proposed Subchapter M rule announced in August 2011, the Coast Guard received more than 250 online comments and 150 written comments. Carpenter said the industry is still much more concerned about the original controversies that arose in that original rule.

In particular, there is disagreement over the ability of operators to choose either a Coast Guard inspection or a safety management system option. Companies are balking at “the very expensive engineering requirements” including fully redundant propulsion and steering systems for boats that move tank barges, Carpenter said.

AWO doesn’t know how much the fire-protection discussion might delay the issuance of the final rule.

“This is an important rulemaking and it is important to get it right,” Carpenter said. “At the same time, I do worry about losing momentum.”

Miller told the Tug/Barge Day audience that the Coast Guard targeted November 2012 — “or, more realistically, next year” — for releasing a supplemental rule on structural fire protection.

Miller noted that any supplemental proposed rule would require another 90-day comment period, plus probably an additional year for the Coast Guard to incorporate the comments into a new draft. After the final rule, the whole of Subchapter M would take effect in three years. Then operators would have two years to choose an inspection option. Then they would have four years to get their entire fleet inspected and 10 more years to bring all vessels fully into compliance. That means it will take 19 years before all U.S. towing vessels satisfy the rules.

By Professional Mariner Staff