Towing vessel inspections long overdue

A headline in The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune on Sunday said, “Towing Vessel Industry Bracing for New Inspection Program by the Coast Guard.” Considering the recent spate of accidents on the Mississippi River and other national waterways, some of which have resulted in significant oil spills and injuries to crewmembers, this should come as no shock to towing vessel operators. It should also serve as a wake-up call to substandard operators who’ve long enjoyed freedom from any standards or regulation beyond the most basic of vessel requirements.

It’s not that Coast Guard standards for inspected vessels are particularly rigorous. No one would argue that every commercial vessel on U.S. waters shouldn’t have containment devices on their fuel-fills, or life rings to throw to luckless deckhands. But the lack of any inspection standard whatsoever has permitted a large number of poorly maintained and even dangerous towing vessels on the nation’s waterways, and this new regimen is a welcome step in the right direction.

Even towing vessel operators recognize the need for the coming regulations. Merritt Lane, president and CEO of Canal Barge Co. in New Orleans, told the Picayune that he supports changes. “Either folks will comply, or they won’t be able to play,” he said. Smaller operators may grumble that Canal Barge can afford proper equipment and maintenance while they cannot, but the sophistry of that argument is obvious.

Some readers may be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) by my pro-regulation stance, but as a marine insurance inspector of many years’ standing, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve inspected towing vessels that lacked even the most basic safety and anti-pollution equipment. I routinely require them, on behalf of my P&I club clients, to have and maintain onboard equipment above and beyond the Coast Guard’s requirements, because our concern is liability, regardless of Coast Guard standards.

Owners cry bitter tears and angrily tell me that, because their vessels meet Coast Guard requirements, I have no right to demand anything further. Well, I give such arguments the attention they deserve, which is none. I’ve never had an insurance company come back complaining that I’ve been too harsh on their potential customers. They realize that a substandard vessel is a danger to itself and its crew and is a source of liability to every other vessel on the water.

Does a towing vessel cause less pollution when it sinks? Does the life of a crewmember on a towing vessel matter less than one on another type of vessel? Do other vessels suffer less damage when an ill-equipped and poorly maintained towing vessel strikes them? Of course not. There’s no reason why the standards other commercial vessels have to meet shouldn’t apply to towing vessels, and this is the basis for the Coast Guard’s new regulations. As Mr. Lane cogently observed, substandard operators must improve their fleets or tie them up. It’s that simple.


Editor’s note: The American Waterways Operators expects the towing vessel inspection notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to be published in the Federal Register during the first week of August. The rulemaking will have a 120-day comment period and four public meetings will be held. AWO will hold a meeting to review the NPRM Aug. 30-31 in Arlington, Va.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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