In a development long sought by the salvage industry, operators of oil tank vessels in U.S. waters are now required to have contracts in place with salvors and marine firefighters before an accident takes place.
The new federal provision — Salvage and Marine Firefighting Requirements; Vessel Response Plans for Oil — went into effect on Feb. 22.
It applies to foreign- and U.S.-flagged tank vessels, including barges, that transport oil in bulk as cargo.
Work on the new guidelines dates back to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and the subsequent Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA '90). That law required tank vessel owners to have resources at their disposal to respond to a vessel's "worst case" discharge scenario, including fire and explosion.
OPA '90 did not provide specific requirements for equipment and services, however, and did not require vessel owners to have a contract for services. That prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to draft additional guidelines.
The new provision requires that a signed contract with salvors and marine firefighters be included in an operatorâ€™s vessel response plan (VRP).
The updated VRP must have the name and contact information for service providers in each zone of operation, identify appropriate equipment and resources and establish how quickly the provider can be at the scene if an accident occurs.
Mauricio Garrido, president of T&T Bisso Response, of Houston, said operators and salvors alike will be more prepared for emergencies under the new guidelines.
"The U.S. salvage industry has always performed when called upon," said Garrido, who also serves as president of the American Salvage Association. "However, these regulations have led salvage contractors to enhance their response posture by acquiring additional equipment, formalizing subcontractor networks and focusing on training and personnel development."
Enforcement of the new guidelines falls to the U.S. Coast Guard. Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Allain said a tank vessel will not receive authorization to operate without providing a signed contract to the Coast Guard.
"This provision will not be difficult to enforce, since all foreign vessels are screened prior to arrival in the United States to verify compliance with these regulations," he said. "U.S. vessels are also screened during annual inspections to verify compliance."
Bill Box, spokesman for the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko), said the guidelines require vessel operators and salvors to agree to rates and stipulate them in the contract.
"As the rates are negotiable to a certain extent, the cost of compliance to a ship owner varies," he said. "It should be noted that the Coast Guard does not evaluate the dollar value of the agreed rates included in the (contract). The Coast Guard only confirms that the rates for equipment and services to be provided are agreed upon by both parties, and that response will not be delayed due to negotiations."
With the contract provision for tank vessel operators in place, the salvage industry is looking to expand the rule to non-tank vessels.