When a barge tow collides with a tanker, it is always an unwelcome development, one sure to portray the industry in a questionable light on the national stage.
But the incident proved that the marine industry, in particular the inland barge industry, has come a long way since the Exxon Valdez and other high-profile incidents. Not only did the July accident on the Mississippi River bring several important issues to light – including problems attracting and retaining qualified personnel and the upcoming towing vessel inspection regime – it also showed that the barge industry is much better prepared to deal with disasters. In the past, the industry would often go silent after major spills, bridge allisions, etc., thus creating a public relations nightmare.
With the July spill, the industry was again placed in the national limelight and its post-accident response was put to the test.
After several high-profile incidents in the ’90s (including the 1996 North Cape barge spill off the coast of Rhode Island that resulted in the sentencing of employees and millions in fines that tarnished the barge industry’s image), marine companies finally began to get the message. Many sought out professional guidance from public relations firms and industry associations on how to be responsive when things go wrong, thus minimizing potential long-term image damage to the industry. The American Waterways Operators also instituted its Responsible Carrier Program, a framework to help improve the industry’s safety performance.
Now, companies are much more proactive after an incident, as evidenced by ACL’s quick response to the July spill.
While not admitting guilt, ACL, which owned the barge and towboat involved in the accident, got out front and teamed with the Coast Guard and incident response teams to release daily updates to the media. All the while, ACL let it be known that they were “doing all they could” to address the spill and cleanup.
This is a big improvement over the post-incident hide-and-seek days. Let’s hope ACL and the rest of the industry address any questions thrown their way at hearings and, if needed, make any necessary operational and institutional changes.