Tougher rules for towboats ahead, conference warns

[B]Tougher rules for towboats ahead, conference warns[/B]

[B] By Jen DeGregorio [/B]

[B]December 07, 2009, 12:28PM[/B]

The annual International WorkBoat Show in New Orleans is usually a boisterous affair, with thousands of maritime executives buzzing around a sprawling show floor to check out displays of shiny new vessels and high-tech nautical gear.
But some heavy concerns lurked beneath the fanfare of this year’s event, which ran Wednesday through Friday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Along with questions about how to keep businesses afloat during an economic downturn, many convention-goers were also wondering how they would cope with tough new Coast Guard requirements for the towing industry, one of the biggest sectors represented at the workboat show.
The Coast Guard is in the final stages of drafting new rules for tugboats, or towboats, which for years have been classified as "uninspected towing vessels, " or UTVs. That status has meant that the nation’s fleet of more than 5,000 tugboats – responsible for moving chemicals, fuel and other sensitive cargo – have avoided regular inspections to ensure that they meet federal safety standards.
The lack of oversight, critics say, has contributed to accidents on inland waterways. A glaring example occurred in July 2008, when an improperly licensed tugboat pilot turned an oil barge into the path of an oncoming ship on the Mississippi River, spilling 280,000 gallons of oil near New Orleans.
Congress urged the Coast Guard to come up with a plan to regulate UTVs back in 2004, but the rule-making process never gained traction. Last summer’s oil spill, one of the worst in river history, created a new sense of urgency.
Boats will get regular exams
The Coast Guard has since been busy drafting the new rules, which should be published early next year, followed by a 120-day period for public comment. The suggested requirements are still under wraps, but one thing is certain: Tugboats will have to undergo regular examinations by the Coast Guard, possibly every year. There could also be stricter standards for mariner training and staffing levels aboard vessels, fire and electrical equipment, among other guidelines.
"This is going to be a big regulatory change for the towing industry, " said Jennifer Carpenter, senior vice president of American Waterways Operators, or AWO, a private trade association for the towing industry.
AWO, based in Arlington, Va., tried to fill the regulatory gap by coming up with its own safety regime for member companies, which control roughly two-thirds of the tugboats operating in the United States. Requiring members to pass various inspections, AWO’s seal of approval is supposed to signal that a company is a safe operator.
But AWO ran into trouble after last year’s spill on the river. The group did not inform the Coast Guard or the barge industry that the company involved in the accident had a bad record. DRD Towing, the Harvey company that operated the vessel involved in the accident, also failed AWO’s safety exams. But the company’s membership was not revoked until after the accident.
AWO responded by criticizing the Coast Guard for failing to create the new inspection program, saying regular checks could have prevented the spill because DRD Towing would have already been on the Coast Guard’s radar.
"We’re really looking forward to publication of the rules, " Carpenter said.
Details are scarce
A small crowd gathered at the WorkBoat show to hear the Coast Guard discuss the developing program. Details about new requirements were scarce, but Coast Guard officers explained that they were working closely with the towing industry to ensure a smooth transition. The agency has been scheduling voluntary inspections to let towboat operators know whether their vessels meet current standards or need to be upgraded.
"It’s our position that over the next few years "¦ we’re on every towing vessel leading up to the implementation of the regulations, " said Lee Boone, chief of the Coast Guard’s domestic vessel division.
The Coast Guard has also performed more random inspections of towing vessels since last year’s spill, said Michael White, who oversees towboats for the Coast Guard’s 8th District, which includes New Orleans. The agency has performed more than 1,200 towing exams and boardings this year, compared with 197 during 2007, White said.
"It will increase every year from now on, " White said.
David Wiseman, operations manager for Texas towing company Cayo LP, has “seen a lot more activity by the Coast Guard since the accident” on the river last year, he said. So far the Coast Guard has gone easy on companies, pointing out flaws without formally citing violations, White said.
But Wiseman, who attended the workboat show’s Wednesday towing session, expressed frustration about the agency’s silence about new requirements. Wiseman worried that his company would not have enough time to update its fleet of two towboats.
"We’re worried about the timeline and getting all the information in time, " Wiseman said.