More than a dozen years in the making, the final Subchapter M towing vessel regulations, establishing new requirements for design, construction, onboard equipment and operation, were published in the June 20 Federal Register. The massive 800-page final rule – including supporting documents and commentary – is finally out, starting a six-year phase-in period. But industry has been preparing for a long time, and indeed many operators have already incorporated the new standards.

Tug-and-barge industry lobbyists the American Waterways Operators, a prime mover behind developing the regulations, held online seminars early this week to brief members on the new rule. Those are just the first in a series of information and education events that AWO will host over the coming months, coordinating with the Coast Guard, “and with the guidance of the AWO board of directors and Towing Vessel Inspection Working Group,” Jennifer Carpenter, executive vice president and chief operating officer of AWO, said in an email Monday to members.

“Later this week, the Towing Vessel Inspection Working Group will meet in Arlington, Va., to conduct an in-depth review of the final rule to guide AWO’s ongoing advocacy and member education efforts,” Carpenter said.

At the International Tug, Salvage and OSV Conference in Boston in May, AWO president and CEO Tom Allegretti said Subchapter M “will take safety in the U.S. towboat industry to a new level.”

“Congress and the American people expect flawless safety performance” regardless of the industry’s economic conditions, Allegretti said then. “Safety is our franchise to operate tugboats and barges.”

In 2003 AWO made a decision to support the Coast Guard in seeking the statutory authority to establish a new towing vessel inspection regime, for the first major change in that authority since 1936.

A year later Congress passed the Maritime Transportation Act of 2004, reclassifying towing vessels as subject to inspection, and authorizing the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security through the Coast Guard to establish requirements for a safety management system appropriate for the characteristics, methods of operation and the unique nature of towing vessels.

The Coast Guard embarked on intensive consultations with the industry and other stakeholders to design the Subchapter M rule. Starting in 2009 AWO and the Coast Guard worked together on the Towing Vessel Bridging Program, to help the agency and the industry prepare for the transition to inspections.

The measures are phased-in, and existing towing vessels will have an additional two years before having to comply with most of the requirements. With certain exceptions, these regulations apply to U.S.-flag towing vessels 26’ or more in length and those under 26’ that move barges carrying oil or hazardous material in bulk. The rule lays out new compliance options as well as new equipment, construction and operational requirements for towing vessels.

The rules give operators the choice of two inspection options: the traditional Coast Guard inspection, and the new Towing Safety Management System (TSMS) option. Under TSMS, routine audits and surveys of towing vessels will primarily be performed by Coast Guard-approved third-party organizations (TPOs), including certain classification societies. The rule also provides a framework for oversight and audits of TPOs by the Coast Guard.

"AWO is working with the Coast Guard to finalize its acceptance of the RCP as a TSMS as quickly as possible, ensuring that the most widely used safety management system in the tugboat, towboat and barge industry provides a practicable path to compliance with Subchapter M," Carpenter said.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.