Big events, such as environmental disasters, vessel casualties and acts of terrorism, often lead to changes in maritime law, regulation and policy.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska brought us the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and the grounding of the New Carissa on the Oregon coast in 1999 prompted Congress to require non-tank vessels to have spill response plans. The 9/11 terrorist attacks led to the enactment of the Maritime Transportation Safety Act and the 1983 sinking of the coal carrier Marine Electric off the Virginia coast resulted in legislation that created the Coast Guard’s famed rescue swimmer program.
The most recent example is the 2015 loss of the U.S.-flagged cargo vessel El Faro and its crew of 33 off Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. After completing investigations of the casualty, the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board recommended substantial policy changes. Based on these recommendations, lawmakers developed the Maritime Safety Act of 2018, which was incorporated into the Save our Seas Act and signed into law by President Trump in October.
The new law focuses on freight vessel safety, but parts of it have implications for the domestic passenger vessel sector. Here are a few:
• Each year, the Coast Guard must publicize domestic vessel compliance, or non-compliance, with its inspection and safety requirements. This will include passenger carrying vessels.
• There must be an audit of the “implementation and effectiveness” of legally required safety management systems (SMS). The Coast Guard has yet to implement the provision of the 2010 Coast Guard Authorization Act calling for a rulemaking that mandates SMSes for certain passenger vessels. The Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) has created its own voluntary SMS program, called Flagship, that is available to PVA members.
• The Coast Guard must improve the ability of its senior personnel to oversee third-party organizations (i.e., classification societies and organizations that conduct Subchapter M towing vessel inspections), to which certain safety functions have been delegated. The Coast Guard will evaluate what is needed to triple the size of the traveling inspector corps and to increase reliance on civilian marine inspectors and experienced licensed mariners.