New federal law requires inspection of towing vessels

Towing vessels will be required to undergo U.S. Coast Guard inspection as a result of new legislation that is expected to have a profound effect on the industry.

C.F. Campbell is a 4,000-hp ocean-capable tug built in 1975 by Halter Marine. Over 5,000 tugs in the United States will be subject to U.S. Coast Guard inspection as a result of a new law.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Harley Marine

On Aug. 9, President Bush signed the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2004, which included a single sentence making towing vessels the 15th category of vessels inspected by the Coast Guard.

That sentence may represent the most significant federal action affecting the towing industry since 1972, when towboat operators were required to be licensed.

“We consider this to be the single most important safety step for many a year in the towing industry,” said Jeff Parker, vice president of operators for Allied Transportation Co. of Norfolk, Va.

Union officials welcomed passage of the law, which they expect will improve safety standards. Richard A. Block, secretary of the Gulf Coast Mariners Association, said, “The towing industry is one of the most dangerous industries to work [in] in the country.”

Coast Guard statistics show that between 1994 and 2001, towing vessel accidents resulted in the deaths of 150 people.

In 2002, there were 5,180 towboats and pushboats, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That figure does not include ship-assist tugboats.

While it is clear that towing vessels will be inspected, it is not clear how the inspections will be carried out, because the rules of the inspection program are still to be worked out. An internal Coast Guard group — consisting of technical writers, economists, lawyers, representatives from the marine safety program and others — was expected to begin working on the proposed rules soon, said Scott Kuhaneck, a commercial vessel safety specialist in the Coast Guard’s Office of Compliance.

It is possible this group will have proposed regulations ready for public comment as early as next summer, Kuhaneck said. Alternatively, the working group could hold a series of hearings to solicit public opinion first and then produce a proposed set of regulations, he said. No timetable has been fixed, but he said a final rule could be issued by 2007.

The legislation also allows for the establishment of “a safety management system appropriate for the characteristics, methods of operation, and nature of service of towing vessels.”

Industry critics have been pushing for inspections of towing vessels for over 30 years. In recent years, the industry has been developing safety programs that include inspections, but not all towing companies were taking part.

The American Waterways Operators decided, on their own, to seek Coast Guard inspection of towing vessels. In 1994 the AWO established its Responsible Carrier Program. Initially voluntary, the program required towing companies to maintain standards for a range of operations, including fuel transfer procedures, safety training, environmental policy, incident reporting, emergency response and equipment.

In 1998, the AWO made it mandatory for its members to follow the Responsible Carrier Program and undergo a third-party audit for compliance. By 2000, all AWO members had been audited, and 13 companies left the organization rather than face the audit, according to the AWO.

In 2002, the AWO began internal discussions about inspections of towing vessels, according to Jennifer Kelly Carpenter, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the AWO.

The AWO proposed to the Coast Guard that an industry-wide safety management program be adopted, similar to the Responsible Carrier Program, rather than traditional inspections. “We’re trying to break new ground with this process in that the intent here is that the towing industry will be inspected as a result of employing a Coast Guard-approved safety management system,” said Parker, chairman of the Coast Guard’s Towing Safety Advisory Committee, an industry and government group that will help shape the new regulations.

“Instead of a traditional, ship-based inspection system, the intent here is that all towing vessels would be subject to a safety management system, yet to be devised.”

Kuhaneck would not say which approach is likely to be adopted. In previous policy documents the Coast Guard has indicated its support for a safety management system, he said. “Adding 5,000 vessels without gaining any additional resources would certainly increase the work load at a lot of units,” Kuhaneck said. “If we can find a way to manage that more effectively, and if a safety management system helps us do that, then I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t look at that.”

The inspections of towboats will have to meet the same legal standards that govern inspections of other classes of vessels, according to U.S. Rep. James L. Obserstar, a Minnesotan who is the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “In bringing towing vessels under inspection, Congress made no changes to the scope or type of inspection required,” he said in a written statement.

By law, either the Coast Guard or a classification society with inspection authority will have to inspect towing vessels to ensure compliance and issue a certification of inspection, good for five years, according to Obserstar. In between these inspections, the Coast Guard could oversee a safety management system to make sure repairs and maintenance work are conducted properly, he said.

While representatives of towing companies said some members were worried about the prospect of new regulations, they said it is a step the industry has to take.

“Yes, it’s a risk,” said Edmund J. Moran, senior vice president of Moran Towing Corp. “But we just think we need to do it. We think we need to be proactive.”

Safety is good business, said Moran, who is chairman of the AWO’s board of directors. “All of us in AWO feel that, not only is it appropriate to be safe for safety’s sake, it’s the moral, ethical thing to do. It’s also the sensible business thing to do.”

By Professional Mariner Staff