Towing industry enters new inspection era under Subchapter M


After a 12-year process, Subchapter M, the federal regime for the inspection of the nation’s towing vessels, is now law.

Now a new chapter begins. Owners and operators have up to six years from July 20 to meet the requirements of Subchapter M as it is phased in. But in order for all vessels to get a dry-dock inspection from the U.S. Coast Guard, there will be some flexibility in the compliance process.

In the first two years, companies have to choose one of two options: a traditional Coast Guard routine inspection every year, or adopting a towing safety management system (TSMS) approved and verified by a third-party organization. The TSMS will have to be audited by July 20, 2018. However, the third-party group must first be certified by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard planned to list these groups on the Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise website starting July 20.

For the next step, there is a four-year window to obtain a certificate of inspection (COI) for each vessel. Companies need to have 25 percent of their fleets inspected by July 22, 2019; 50 percent by July 20, 2020; 75 percent by July 19, 2021, and all vessels inspected by July 19, 2022. Single-vessel companies need to get a COI by July 20, 2020.

In addition to the time it will take companies to get their TSMS plan audited and approved by a third-party organization, the regulation also states that owners and operators must schedule their first Subchapter M Coast Guard inspection three months before it actually occurs.

As of July 20 of this year, only the classification societies had the authority to audit TSMS plans, said Rocky Marchiano, vice president at MarineCFO of Houma, La. Given the challenges of complying with Subchapter M, Marchiano has concerns whether all 5,500 vessels affected by Subchapter M will be able to get a Coast Guard inspection done by the final compliance date of July 19, 2022, unless the agency adds personnel to its inspection team. However, he believes that the Coast Guard will be flexible. 

“If there is a huge backlog, the Coast Guard will step up to the plate and grant waivers to ease the congestion,” he said.

Lt. Katie Braynard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard in Washington, told Professional Mariner that the service recognizes that compliance will take time. 

“Some requirements are deferred for five years from the issuance of the initial COI,” she said. “A Coast Guard-credit dry dock could occur after the initial issuance of a certificate of inspection (it is not required to be completed prior to the issuance).”

After receiving the first certificate of inspection, vessels that will be exposed to salt water for more than six months in the following 12-month period must undergo a dry dock twice every five years; vessels in salt water for less than six months in that period must be dry-docked once every five years.

Tugs from Marine Towing of Tampa assist a ship in Tampa Harbor. Under Subchapter M, vessels that regularly ply salt water will face a more rigorous dry-docking regimen than freshwater vessels.

Brian Gauvin

Braynard disagrees that more staff will be needed for the inspections. “The Coast Guard is sufficiently staffed to handle this work, particularly if the schedule outlined in the final rule is followed,” she said. “A company may opt to use one of the TSMS compliance options to verify that their vessels are in continuous compliance, therefore minimizing the need and presence of Coast Guard personnel on board the vessel as compared to the Coast Guard option.”

A significant method of compliance, the 22-year-old Responsible Carrier Program (RCP) run by the American Waterways Operators, was still up in the air as of mid-July. The Coast Guard indicated it would accept the RCP as being equivalent to a towing safety management system last year, said Jennifer Carpenter, chief operating officer for the AWO. However, the final rule states that the Coast Guard is still considering the AWO program and also will consider other safety management systems as paths to compliance. 

Carpenter said she still foresees the Coast Guard approving the AWO program. “We expect to submit the RCP for acceptance as towing safety management system this summer,” she said in an online news conference in late June. The AWO has 209 members that are in the RCP, with another 23 working to achieve compliance.

Since the proposed rule was published in 2011, several sections have changed in ways that benefit the industry. Many requirements have been grandfathered so that they do not apply to existing vessels.

Many operators were concerned that Subchapter M would require expensive electrical renovations. The Coast Guard agreed that some of the electrical requirements were too burdensome and unnecessary and thus eliminated them. The new rule also deleted some requirements for propulsion energy fuel lines and independent auxiliary steering systems for existing vessels. Existing vessels now have five years after the vessel’s first inspection to meet towing machinery guidelines.

Given the length of time it took to develop Subchapter M, the final rule is presenting few problems for many in the industry. Brent Nissen, director of maritime compliance for Archer Daniels Midland, said there were no surprises for his company and its 80-tug fleet. 

“I feel we are in good shape. We have been working on this for a while,” he said, noting that the company has been preparing for five years. “There wasn’t a whole lot that was totally different from the proposed rulemaking.”

Some operators are concerned about what will be considered a new vessel under Subchapter M. Since the 2011 publication of the proposed rule, the Coast Guard has modified the definition of what constitutes a new vessel, a class that faces more stringent guidelines under the new regimen. 

In the proposed rule, owners would have had only 30 days to make changes to a new vessel already being designed to achieve compliance with Subchapter M. 

“It would be very difficult and costly to make changes in line with the ‘new vessel’ requirements in those instances where the design of a vessel is almost complete,” according to the final rule. As a result, the timetable has been expanded from 30 days to a year for new vessels under construction.

However, there is confusion as to whether an existing vessel that undergoes a major conversion will have to meet the regulations for new vessels. “One question I guess most people have is what happens to steel hull repair,” said Pat Folan of Tug and Barge Solutions of Daphne, Ala. “Owners are asking ‘what happens when I make (hull) modifications?’”

Another question is whether an engine replacement will trigger the standards for new vessels. This topic came up in AWO meetings with about 75 members the week the rule was published in June. 

The Crowley ATB tug Achievement and barge 650-8 ply the Mississippi River near New Orleans. Towing industry experts say there are few surprises in the final rule for large operators.

Brian Gauvin

“A couple of major areas are ensuring that routine engine replacements don’t trigger a major conversion determination,” said AWO President Tom Allegretti. The language of the rule needs perfecting in that regard, he said. “We were happy to hear that it is not the Coast Guard’s intention that engine repowers will trigger a major conversion determination.”

Braynard said these decisions would be made by the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Center. The Coast Guard will continue to follow guidelines from a Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) issued in October 1981 regarding the inspection of existing vessels, she said. 

“Repowerings may be deemed a major conversion if the intent is clearly to extend the economic life of the vessel,” she said. “Per the long-standing implantation of this policy, modifications that only involve replacement of aging equipment or material, propulsion upgrades to achieve greater efficiency … or compliance with environmental standards are not considered major conversions.”

An underlying theme when owners and operators react to Subchapter M is how smaller operators will handle it. If a smaller operator has not started work on Subchapter M, it will be difficult to meet the deadlines, said Dave Hammond, president of Inland Marine Service of Hebron, Ky. 

“These small- and medium-sized companies, if they haven’t started they will not get it done in six months or a year — it will take longer than that,” he said, referring to creating a TSMS plan. “I don’t think they will have the time or be able to financially afford implementation of the changes needed to comply.”

Hammond said his company is prepared, as it was one of the first AWO members to complete its RCP program in the early 1990s. The safety management system makes his company better, but it was an exhaustive process. 

“You have to go out and do a whole culture change with your fleet and your employees,” Hammond said. “It’s a big undertaking.”

By Professional Mariner Staff