U.S. Coast Guard hopes to release proposed tugboat inspection rules this spring

Barge 455-3, launched at Gunderson Marine in Portland, Ore., was the third in Crowley Maritime Corp.’s Heavy Lift 455 Series. Gunderson anticipates delivering four more barges in the series to Crowley in 2009. (Courtesy Gunderson Marine)

After nearly five years of talks and revisions, the U.S. Coast Guard will give the public its first look this spring at proposed inspection rules for tugboats, towboats and barges.

While trade associations, most notably the American Waterways Operators (AWO), have established programs for voluntary inspections of towing vessels, all but the largest seagoing craft in this class have not been subject to mandatory federal review. Lobbying from the industry led to congressional action in 2004 mandating that these vessels be removed from the uninspected ranks, which in turn has led to the Coast Guard’s proposed guidelines.

The provisions were drafted in concert with recommendations from the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC), a group that includes representatives from the barge and towing industry, shippers, port and terminal personnel, labor officials and members of the public. The Coast Guard will now publish the draft, or notice of proposed rulemaking, in the Federal Register.

“There will be a 120-day period for public comments and input, then a somewhat lengthy procedural process with reviews, changes and the drafting of the final rule," said Jeff Lantz, director of commercial regulations and standards for the Coast Guard. “Realistically, (the regulations) would not take effect until 2010 at the earliest."

Lantz could not specify exactly when the document will be published.

Many in the industry have pushed for a shorter timeline, including AWO Chairman H. Merritt Lane III. In an editorial submitted to the newspaper New Orleans CityBusiness and abridged in the Times-Picayune after the July 23, 2008, oil spill involving the tug Mel Oliver (PM #118), Lane stated that the Coast Guard “should move immediately to publish the TSAC-recommended towing vessel inspection rules and help make a safe industry even safer."

The spill on the Mississippi River occurred when the tanker Tintomara collided with a barge being towed by Mel Oliver. The barge split in half, dumping 270,000 gallons of oil into the river. The company operating the tug, DRD Towing Co. of Harvey, La., had failed an AWO safety audit earlier in the year. The vessel also lacked a qualified pilot at the time of the collision, the Coast Guard said.

To help prevent similar accidents, TSAC has recommended that the Coast Guard adopt a safety management system like the AWO’s Responsible Carrier Program or the International Maritime Organization’s International Safety Management (ISM) Code, both of which include vessel inspections and greater responsibility for shoreside administration. Failing a safety audit would lead to immediate notification to the Coast Guard, which could force the company to correct the problem “or get its vessels off the water," Lane wrote.

“Had this system been in place (last year), the Coast Guard would have been notified when the company operating the Mel Oliver failed its industry safety audit • which could have forced the company to tighten up its procedures for ensuring that only properly licensed personnel can crew its vessels," he said.

Dave Dolloff, marine transportation specialist for the Coast Guard and manager of its Towing Vessel Inspection rulemaking project, said the Coast Guard decided to seek industry input on possible guidelines before drafting an initial proposal, which has delayed publication of the document. Typically the proposal is published first, he said.

“By getting feedback first, we knew it would take us longer to get the rule out, but it would better represent the industry when we did," Dolloff said. “There has been quite a bit of impatience, but we wanted to get this right. We hope it will result in a better rule."

Lantz said the safety management system recommended by TSAC represents a departure from current Coast Guard practice by placing additional emphasis on what happens off the water.

“It would involve putting into place a holistic look at a ship’s management and safety as opposed to just looking at the material condition," he said, declining to elaborate on specifics in the draft. “Keep in mind that this is just a proposal, but it’s strongly recommended by the committee."

Dolloff said the Coast Guard anticipates some negative feedback on the proposal, but hopes to receive positive comments as well, especially from members of TSAC.

“A lot of people were involved, good representatives from across the towing industry," he said. “The majority of towing vessels are safe and competently managed. They do a lot of work moving commodities around the U.S., and they’ve done it for a long time. But there are always some in the group that lag behind. We’re hoping to address that group more with this rule."

Many companies that have voluntarily made changes in the face of the coming towing inspection rules have discovered a bonus beyond meeting the mandate: better organization and improved corporate culture.

By Professional Mariner Staff