By HARRY R. WEBER and DAN MURTAUGH
Tighter regulation of US ships carrying record exports of
diesel and gasoline is coming amid the worst year for oil
spills from barges since 2008.
Coast Guard rules to be issued within the next 90 days would
require commercial vessels nationwide to be equipped with
Automatic Identification System, or AIS, technology
, which uses
transponders and electronic chart displays to alert pilots to
neighboring ships, according to trade group American
A pending inspection regulation would bring ships more in
line with trains and trucks that carry similar cargo.
Growing amounts of shale oil thats made the US the
worlds biggest energy producer moves through inland
waterways on ships almost twice as long and that carry 10
times the load of vessels plying the same routes in the
Export traffic on the Houston Ship Channel in 2013 rose 8.8%
to a record 109.2 million metric tons. Towing vessels or
barges were involved in 1,852 accidents and other mishaps
nationwide last year, up 4% compared with 2012.
More traffic is indicative of more opportunities for
things to go south, Steven Nerheim, director of the
Coast Guards Vessel Traffic Service for
Houston-Galveston, said in an Aug. 4 phone interview.
Think about the size of the average merchant ship 50
years ago and then think about the size of the ships
today. He added: Youre dealing with
A March 22 collision in the Houston Ship Channel, which
closed the countrys largest export gateway for three
days, spilled 168,000 gal of oil from a barge, making this
year the worst since at least 2008, when 286,653 gal were
lost from tank barges, according to a July 30 report by the
Coast Guard and American Waterways Operators. There were
17,529 gal spilled last year.
AIS is required in Vessel Traffic Service zones, the busy
waterways monitored for ship traffic by Coast Guard staff who
watch radar and advise pilots, and has been voluntarily
installed by other operators, Jennifer Carpenter, executive
vice president of American Waterways Operators, an Arlington,
Virginia-based trade group for the US tugboat, towboat and
barge industry, said in an Aug. 6 phone interview.
The group also is pushing the government to publish a
towing-vessel inspection regulation that was authorized by
Congress in 2004 and has yet to take effect. According to the
Coast Guard, it doesnt issue inspection certificates to
such vessels unless they are ocean-going and above 300 gross
Based on Coast Guard data, the radar technology
requirement is expected
to cost the industry about $69 million to comply, including
capital costs, installation and training, Ann McCulloch, a
spokeswoman for the waterways group, said in an Aug. 26
e-mail responding to questions.
Adapting an existing safety management system in line with
the pending inspection rule would cost about $15,000 per
company, while the cost of creating a new, approved safety
management system would range from $61,000 to $150,000 per
company, McCulloch said.
In spite of the costs, AWO and our members are very
supportive of these proposed regulations, she said.
New regulations would make inspections more uniform, as they
would apply to towing vessels that are 26 feet or longer, as
well as any such ship pushing, pulling or hauling a barge
carrying dangerous or hazardous materials.
Booming oil production and crude export restrictions have
made the US the most profitable refining
center in the world
and helped boost shipments of petroleum products such as
gasoline and diesel to a record 3.3 million bpd in December.
In March, the Summer Wind, a 585-foot Liberian-flagged vessel
operated by Cleopatra Shipping Agency Ltd. traveling at 12
knots, and the Miss Susan, a Kirby Inland Marine tug that was
towing a barge carrying fuel oil at 4 knots, didnt
realize they were on a collision course until a few minutes
before the crash, even as a Coast Guard radar was tracking
their positions through the channel. Theres no speed
limit in the waterway.
The AIS technology
regulations may not be enough. The Miss Susan was already
equipped with AIS, Matt Woodruff, Kirbys director of
government affairs, said in an e- mail responding to
Different types of vessels can handle in radically different
ways, Kathy Metcalf, director of maritime affairs for the
Chamber of Shipping of America, the Washington-based trade
organization that represents US shipping companies, said in
an Aug. 7 phone interview.
Even the same ship can have a different turn radius or
weather impact based on whether its loaded with cargo
coming into a port or empty after it leaves, Metcalf said,
and because they travel relatively slowly in port,
theyre more often affected by wind and ocean currents.
An invisible hand from shore can never take the place
of the well-trained hand of the person operating that
vessel, Carpenter said.
The new rules are being proposed as export volume is growing
at ports in New Orleans, a major exporter of grain, coffee
; Los Angeles, where
containers filled with raw materials and agricultural goods
move offshore; and Norfolk, Virginia, a major coal hub.
According to Coast Guard steering and sailing rules that
mariners on US waterways must follow, there is no specific
speed that is defined as appropriate for all situations and
types of vessels. The rules say that all vessels should
consider visibility, traffic density, vessel maneuverability,
lighting, and wind and sea conditions when determining on
their own the appropriate safe speed to avoid a
By comparison, trucks must follow posted speed limits, while
the Federal Aviation Administration requires aircraft below
10,000 feet not to exceed a speed of 250 knots. Freight
trains also are subject to speed limits on certain tracks.
US barges and ships that operate in the Houston Ship Channel,
home to the largest petrochemical
complex in the
country, generally are not inspected while in transit between
locations, Gary Messmer, the Coast Guards chief of
prevention for the Houston-Galveston sector, said in a
telephone interview Aug. 4. Those vessels are given an annual
inspection and are subject to periodic audits.
Unlike foreign vessels arriving via the Gulf of Mexico or
another country, they dont have to give 96-hour notice
of arrival, he said.
US commercial airlines, by comparison, are required to file
flight plans to be able to take off, and air traffic
controllers maintain strict control over the airspace in
which those planes travel. The FAA also requires business-jet
operators to provide their origin, route and destination so
the agency can manage traffic flow.
Coast Guard and shipping industry officials say they are open
to a broader discussion of the regulations and level of
oversight in the shipping industry as port traffic increases.
Making those rules more similar to those for other modes of
transport is complicated because conditions on the water can
We see the people who are best equipped to take action
to prevent a casualty are the men and women who are operating
those vessels using the tools that have been provided to
them, Carpenter of the American Waterways Operators