Subchapter M glass ‘half full’ amid progress and challenges


In one breath, Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of the American Waterways Operators, describes Subchapter M as “a singular milestone” for an industry striving to improve safety and eliminate spills. In the next, he acknowledges the Coast Guard’s towing vessel inspection standards remain a work in progress, and could stay that way for some time.

“The mission of Subchapter M has yet to be accomplished,” Allegretti said during a conference at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) campus near Baltimore in late September.

“There is a long road ahead of us to … bridge the gap between the regulation and the reality of our boats and our barges and our people,” he continued. “Subchapter M will only fulfill its promise when we have bridged that gap.”

Allegretti’s mixed assessment seems to ring true throughout the towing sector comprising roughly 5,800 active vessels and hundreds of companies large and small. Enforcement of the new standards remains something of an open question. Meanwhile, operators continue to report inconsistencies in how the regulations are interpreted by Coast Guard officials in different regions.

Dan Justis, who heads Subchapter M compliance for a large West Coast towing company, said two of its identical SOLAS-rated tugs in different Coast Guard port zones have different manning requirements. Justis said the matter is under appeal, but for now the company must abide by the decision.

“We have noticed some distinct differences in manning requirements,” he said during the MITAGS conference, adding that the mixed interpretations are “kind of frustrating.”

Subchapter M took effect July 20, 2018, after more than a decade of development and review. As of that date, all towing vessels must comply with Subchapter M, even if they do not yet have a certificate of inspection (COI).

Coast Guard data suggests the inspection program started a little slower than expected. The service hoped to issue roughly 1,300 COIs in the first year, through July 20, 2019. When that date arrived, 915 vessels had the credential and another 450 were in progress. As of Sept. 25, that figure had grown to 1,165 COIs with another 500 under review.

A tow moves through Pickwick Lock on the Tennessee River system. Subchapter M stipulates that 50 percent of each operator’s fleet must have a certificate of inspection by July 20, 2020. The COI deadline date also applies to single-vessel operators.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

By July 20, 2020, the regulations require 50 percent of each operator’s fleet to have a COI. The rules also mandate that all single-vessel operators have their COIs by that date. That includes companies with a single boat as well as firms that establish each vessel as a separate entity.

Despite a declining volume of COI applications and relatively thin backlog for single-vessel operators, there is concern not all will be in compliance by July 20, said Cmdr. Andrew Bender with the Coast Guard Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise in Paducah, Ky.

“I like to think it is because we are getting so good at processing COIs … but it is because boats are not submitting applications,” Bender said. “You have to submit applications for us to get the COI processed and out to you.”

Bender acknowledged there will be disagreements between vessel operators and Coast Guard personnel over the interpretation of rules. When those situations arise, he urged operators to file appeals. He also advised them to get to know the local Coast Guard inspection personnel and try to work collaboratively to address any disagreements.

“Communication and partnership. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Bender told the audience of more than 100 surveyors, auditors and towing industry representatives. “Number one is getting to know the marine inspectors, the chiefs of inspection, and the officer in charge, marine inspection (OCMI) in your port. Understand their expectations and they should understand where you are coming from as well.”

Seventy-five percent of COIs have been issued to companies that developed a towing safety management system (TSMS), then hired a recognized third-party organization (TPO) to conduct the vessel audits and surveys. That figure aligns with industry and Coast Guard expectations for the programs. It also signals progress toward the safety goals established through Subchapter M, Allegretti said. The remaining 25 percent of vessels are undergoing Coast Guard inspections to earn a COI.

“The TSMS option to us is really a key part of fulfilling the promise of Subchapter M, because it requires a safety management system,” he said. “It is not just a point in time, on a day of a Coast Guard inspection, to show your compliance with regulatory standards. It is a living process that you utilize every single day to evaluate how well you are doing and improve how well you are doing.”

Receiving a COI one day is no guarantee that vessels will meet the letter of the law the next day. During the three months ending Sept. 30, the Coast Guard found 655 deficiencies on towing vessels required to comply with Subchapter M. Nine vessels were detained, one of them with a COI, Coast Guard data show.

Vessel owners and operators who select the towing safety management system (TSMS) option for Subchapter M compliance must complete management and vessel audits. This is done through a third-party organization or group that can perform the work of a TPO.

Erik Johnson, national towing vessel coordinator for the Coast Guard’s Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance, cited several recurring themes in the deficiency data. The most common problems were with main engines and auxiliary machinery. Inspectors also noted numerous deficiencies with lifesaving and firefighting equipment. Eight of the nine detained vessels also had excessive oily water in their bilges.

One of the detained vessels was a tug on the Gulf of Mexico that lacked a health and safety plan, among other deficiencies. Johnson said the operator had “a general lack of knowledge” of Subchapter M and its requirements, despite more than a decade of industry and Coast Guard outreach.

This particular operator took the appropriate steps to bring the vessel into compliance and later earned a COI, which the Coast Guard considers a “success story,” Johnson said. Others might not be so responsive.

“Those companies are still out there,” he said. “Not all of them are shady characters. We have to meet them where they’re at, and we have got to get everybody up to speed there. Those that are absolutely unwilling to comply, we have to deal with those guys as well.”

He added that the policy at Coast Guard headquarters is not to randomly target or board towing vessels to ensure compliance. “That said, if there is a marine incident, a marine casualty, a reported incident or anything like that, we are going to go out there and dig a little bit deeper,” Johnson said.

Allegretti agreed that enforcement is a critical part of Subchapter M, and it should be “proactive and vigorous.” He suggested that the Coast Guard typically knows which vessels or operators might not be in compliance. Dedicating limited resources toward those operators, he said, will produce the most “safety bang for the buck.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Allegretti is optimistic about the new standards and believes they will yield continued safety improvements for an industry that has seen a marked decline in accidents in recent decades.

“In many ways, the Subchapter M glass is half full,” he said. “What has been accomplished so far is a very good start and a very big deal, but most of the journey is still in front of us.”

By Professional Mariner Staff