Operators racing to meet Subchapter M deadline

The deadline for Coast Guard Subchapter M compliance is fast approaching, but within the towing industry there is still uncertainty around the new inspection regime.

Operators and even some third-party surveyors have expressed frustration with the regulations, which they argue are not being enforced uniformly across different Coast Guard districts — and even sometimes within the same district.

Taken together, many towing companies will not be ready when the rules take effect July 20, according to Rob Keister, manager of compliance and special projects for Sabine Surveyors, one of nine third-party auditing organizations under Subchapter M.

“Some are a lot better off than others,” he said in a recent interview, but others “are just not ready for it. And three months is not enough time to get ready for it.”

Starting July 20, all existing tugboats and towboat vessels above 26 feet must comply with Subchapter M. However, after the first year, only 25 percent of a company’s fleet must have obtained a Coast Guard certificate of inspection (COI) before entering service.

That number increases by 25 percent each year, and all vessels must have this document by July 19, 2022. Single-vessel owners have until 2020 to get their COI. All towing vessels with major conversions or keels laid after July 20, 2017, must meet the regulations and obtain a COI before entering service.

There are two methods for obtaining Subchapter M compliance, and operators must specify which method they are choosing. One involves submitting to a U.S. Coast Guard inspection.

The other method involves creating a Towing Safety Management System (TSMS) and hiring one of the nine third-party organizations to review the TSMS and conduct company and vessel audits and surveys. Companies with existing safety management systems (SMS) could meet TSMS requirements, according to Coast Guard Lt. Amy Midgett.

“Other Coast Guard-accepted SMS, such as the American Waterways Operators’ Responsible Carrier Program, may also be considered as meeting the TSMS requirements,” she said.

The COI is good for five years, although vessels must be re-inspected by the Coast Guard or re-surveyed each year by a third-party organization.

Vessels built to ABS and other class requirements will already meet most Subchapter M requirements. The Coast Guard issued the first COI in April to Marine Towing of Tampa for its tugboat Endeavor.

“Being ABS class, it was easy to pass Subchapter M rules,” MTT’s Capt. Jim Brantner said. “But I can see where vessels not built to class can have great expense to get into compliance.”

In early May, the Coast Guard issued the first COI for an inland towboat to Marquette Transportation’s Sacred Heart.

Great Lakes Towing Co. is among the operators working to bring its 30-tug fleet into full compliance before July 20.

The firm hired a new employee focused solely on managing the documentation, training and tug conformity process required under Subchapter M. As of early May, fleet survey and audit fees had exceeded $100,000, President Joe Starck said.

“The biggest problem we have is interpreting the regulations, which in some cases are ambiguous at best,” he said.

Lindsay Dew, who is leading Great Lakes’ Subchapter M efforts, said inspectors from one Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit will sometimes contradict interpretations of another. Other tug companies, he added, have shared similar concerns in recent months.

“I believe we are going to be ready. I don’t know what we are going to be ready for,” Dew said.

Subchapter M requirements are intended to be universal across all units, Midgett said. But she also acknowledged “limited flexibility” about certain provisions that might apply more to one part of the country than another.

“In some cases, the OCMI (Coast Guard officer in charge, marine inspection) is authorized by certain sections of the regulation to permit departures from specific requirements when special circumstances or arrangements warrant such departures,” she said.

“In this regard, the OCMI recognizes that local practices in meeting the peculiarities of local conditions have often proved safe under conditions that do not conform to specific provisions of the regulations,” she continued, noting that certain provisions applying to the Great Lakes might not apply in the Gulf of Mexico or the Western Rivers.

Given the challenges some operators face, and the shrinking window to resolve them, Keister said some tugs won’t be in compliance come July 20. He also doesn’t expect serious repercussions for those vessels — that is, unless they are involved in a serious casualty.

“If a vessel is not in compliance, who is really going to know unless A, someone gets hurt on the boat and (goes) into litigation and the vessel is found not in compliance … or B, the Coast Guard gets on board after a casualty and realizes the vessel not in compliance?” he said.

As the Subchapter M deadline approaches, the Coast Guard recommends firms develop a plan to bring their vessels into compliance if they haven’t already. Operators also must allow enough time for the Coast Guard or a third-party organization to conduct the necessary inspections, audits and surveys.

“Communication is the key to a smooth and productive process,” Midgett said.

Susan Buchanan contributed reporting.

By Professional Mariner Staff