Mariner panels that advise USCG halt work pending federal review

A panel that allows mariners to provide input to the U.S. Coast Guard has been unable to meet for nine months because of a department-wide review of all advisory committees.

The Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee (MERPAC) advises the Coast Guard on training, qualification, licensing, certification and fitness of merchant mariners. The panel’s mandate to keep going ended after a March 2010 meeting.

It is one of three discretionary committees that are still under review by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Since their charters expired, MERPAC and the Chemical Transportation Advisory Committee (CTAC) cannot work during the review process, which is expected to conclude in early 2011. The National Offshore Safety Advisory Committee (NOSAC) can keep operating because its charter does not expire until February.

“I have been working with DHS on (MERPAC), and we are very optimistic that the department will re-establish that committee,†said Melanee G. Libby, of the Coast Guard Office of Performance Management and Decision Support. She manages the review committees.

MERPAC members are exasperated by the delay. “It would be good to get back to work,†said Capt. Andrew McGovern, MERPAC’s chairman. The industry members of all advisory committees are volunteers.

MERPAC worked on implementation of 1995 amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW). It had been working on the STCW Manila Amendments, adopted in June 2010, before its charter expired.

“It is very frustrating not being able to work on these things when we know that the issues are out there and we are not able to address them,†said McGovern, head of the Sandy Hook Pilots in New Jersey.

MERPAC is one of 12 safety advisory committees. These panels provide a conduit for members of the maritime community to offer their perspective on rules and regulations. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of all department advisory committees.

“This review is designed to examine the function, cost, membership and need for each committee, and determine whether some committees could be consolidated to minimize costs and increase efficiency,†said DHS spokesman Adam Fletcher.

The Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) was unable to operate for about two months, due to the review process. TSAC advises the secretary of the Department of Transportation, via the Coast Guard, on issues relating to shallow-draft inland and costal waterway navigation and towing safety.

The federal mandate for most of the other committees expired Sept. 30, 2010. TSAC is one of 10 Coast Guard advisory committees that have statutory authority from Congress. MERPAC, CTAC and NOSAC are called discretionary committees because they are established by the Coast Guard and DHS.

All 10 statutory committees were re-authorized by the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, signed by President Obama on Oct. 15. In addition to TSAC, these include the Great Lakes Pilotage Advisory Committee, Houston/Galveston Navigation Safety Advisory Committee, Lower Mississippi River Waterway Safety Advisory Committee and the National Maritime Security Advisory Committee. DHS approved their charters Dec. 2, 2010.

A new committee, the Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee, was converted from a discretionary to a statutory committee in the 2010 authorization act. The medical committee was created in 2009 but never met. Its purpose is to further the work MERPAC has already done on issues dealing with medical fitness for the credentialing of merchant mariners and occupational safety, involving experts from the medical community, said Capt. Russell Proctor, office chief at the Coast Guard Office of Operating and Environmental Standards.

“We have been extremely pleased, and consider ourselves fortunate for the long-standing relationship that we have with these committees,†Proctor said.

David A. Tyler

By Professional Mariner Staff