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Coast Guard partnership leads to safer operations for tow, tugboat, barge industry

By MELISSA CROCKETT MESKE
macmeske@ibjonline.com

Courtesy SCF

The American Waterways Operators welcomed a historic milestone for transportation safety this past summer. After two decades of industry work and effort to make this happen, all tugboats and towboats in the United States now must carry a Coast Guard-issued Certificate of Inspection (COI) to operate.

This 100 percent COI compliance means that full implementation of the Subchapter M towing vessel safety regulations is now mandatory. These regulations resulted from a nearly 20-year partnership between the tugboat, towboat and barge industry and the U.S. Coast Guard who had all worked together to raise industry-wide standards and promote safer waterways for mariners, the public and the marine environment.

“AWO member companies have been preparing for the full certification of the towing vessel fleet since the Coast Guard’s publication of the new regulations in 2016, investing millions of dollars and spending countless hours on purchasing new equipment, revising safety policies and procedures, and training crews,” said AWO Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Caitlyn Stewart. 

“With the achievement of this milestone, there is greater Coast Guard oversight of every towing vessel that operates on the waterways, and companies can have confidence that the playing field is level because the Coast Guard is taking enforcement action against companies that don’t follow the rules,” Stewart added.

The American Waterways Operators is the tugboat, towboat and barge industry’s advocate, resource and united voice for safe, sustainable and efficient transportation on America’s waterways, oceans and coasts. AWO notes further indicate that industry vessels move more than 665 million tons of America’s commerce each year on inland and Intracoastal waterways, supporting over 270,000 jobs and contributing over $30 billion to GDP annually.

And the impact of all of this to Southwestern Illinois and the St. Louis metro region is incredible.

On behalf of the American Waterway Operators, Steve Doty noted, “This is a first for the industry, and a huge step for one of the few regulated industries to take formally. 

“Here in Illinois, the economic impact of the industry is staggering. Over 12,000 jobs are supported by the tugboat, towboat and barge industry. $927 million in labor income here in Illinois, $1.5 billion of the GDP annually, is supported by the industry. Each year, 77 million tons of cargo move across Illinois waterways. To say the industry is an economic driver here in Illinois would be an understatement,” Doty further pointed out.

AWO Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications Ben Lerner confirmed those Illinois statistics and shared the numbers for Missouri. “In Missouri, the U.S. tugboat, towboat and barge industry supports a total of 4,400 jobs. It contributes a total of $427 million to Missouri’s GDP and supports a total of $274 million in labor income in Missouri annually. And each year, 37.7 million tons of freight move on Missouri waterways.”

“Every U.S.-flag towing vessel is now required, through federal regulations developed and enforced by the Coast Guard, to carry a Certificate of Inspection in order to operate,” Stewart said. “To obtain a Certificate of Inspection, a towing vessel must undergo an inspection by a Coast Guard inspector to verify that it is in satisfactory condition, fit for its intended service, and in compliance with all applicable requirements. Towing vessels that are certificated under the Coast Guard option undergo annual Coast Guard inspections after obtaining a COI. Towing vessels that are certificated under the Towing Safety Management System option are inspected by the Coast Guard every five years, with an interim schedule of annual surveys and regular audits conducted by Coast Guard-approved third-party organizations.”

At the beginning of 2022, the Coast Guard announced that it would prohibit the operation of any towing vessel not carrying a Certificate of Inspection by July 20 for non-compliance with the agency’s regulations. As of late July, the Coast Guard had prohibited 236 towing vessels from operating for failure to carry a COI as required. 

“As the Coast Guard continues to do its important work on the waterways, including conducting safety and security inspections and investigating marine casualties, it can compel any vessel that is not in compliance with its regulations to take corrective action to ensure waterways safety,” said Stewart.

Stewart also said that, since its start, the goal of towing vessel inspection has been to improve vessel and industry safety to ensure that crewmembers can go home to their families and friends at the end of their hitch. “Over the past several years, in addition to their everyday responsibilities of ensuring the safe operation of their vessels, towing vessel crewmembers have been on the front lines of implementing these new requirements. It was the intention, and it remains the expectation, that their hard work will pay off in reduced accident, injury, and fatality rates. 

“It’s already making a difference – in 2021, the Coast Guard-AWO Safety Partnership recorded the lowest number of towing vessel crew fatalities (two) since tracking began in 1995, and the lowest amount of oil spilled by tank barges (0.1 gallons per 1 million gallons transported) since 2010,” Stewart added.

Regarding some of the main challenges along the way in the nearly 20 years of partnership between the Coast Guard and waterways operators to reach this milestone, Stewart said, “The journey was lengthy in part because of the Coast Guard’s strong commitment to stakeholder engagement. 

“After Congress passed legislation to make towing vessels subject to Coast Guard inspection in 2004, the Coast Guard invited the Congressionally authorized Towing Safety Advisory Committee to inform the development of the new regulations for towing vessels, which enabled vessel owners and operators, crewmembers, and other members of the public to weigh in with their expertise and experience. While the federal rulemaking process took time, AWO members were gratified by the opportunity to participate,” Stewart said.

SCF Lewis and Clark Fleeting operates vessels from Alton, Ill., to Festus, Mo. SCF General Manager Fleeting Kenny Inman said, “SCF Lewis and Clark Fleeting is in fact a part of the COI inspections, and we are proud to say they all got their certification well before the deadline. SCF Lewis and Clark started this process to ensure our vessels were in compliance several years ago. We found the process was not that big of a deal to our operations – the safety of our crews and assets has always been our priority and we welcomed the inspection process.”

“SCF Lewis and Clark has trained our crews to be fully prepared for any type of inspections, we are audited annually by the Coast Guard and the majority of our customers. I believe it goes a long way for our employees when they know they are on a safe vessel and that we do safety and security drills and training on a weekly and monthly basis. We are members of the Responsible Carrier Program (RCP) which is our safety management system. We have four safety personnel that ride and perform in-house inspections on our vessels and shore-side facilities,” Inman said further.

Kindra Lake Towing, LP generally operates in the Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana areas. General Manager Don Campbell said, “For Kindra Lake Towing, we have been affected in a positive way by the implementation of Sub Chapter M. We pride ourselves on the fact that we have always been a safe operator. Sub M has encouraged us to better document our safety procedures, to do more routine inspections and to formalize the safety training of our employees. Most importantly it has put all barge towing companies on the same safety-conscious track, which ultimately makes the barge industry as a whole safer.”

“With Subchapter M now in effect the vessels must meet a minimum standard,” Campbell added. “As a result, workers have become more safety conscious. Due to the current regulations, the workers are exposed to more safety inspections. This includes documentation and added paperwork, especially for the Captains. Subchapter M has helped to promote more safety awareness and accountability for the tug crews. The goal is to create a Safety Culture for all on board the vessels. We believe a Safety Culture is what the crew does individually when no one is looking.”

AWO President and CEO Jennifer Carpenter summarized the achievement of this historic milestone while further emphasizing its importance to the industry on the day of enactment this past summer. “July 19 is a historic day for transportation safety in the largest segment of America’s domestic maritime industry. Our arrival at today’s certification milestone has been driven by our industry’s deep commitment to elevating safety as we transport our nation’s vital cargo as a critical part of the American supply chain.”

“We commend the men and women of the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, and the U.S. Coast Guard, for the bold vision and hard work that have made this achievement possible,” Carpenter added. “Maritime commerce is vital to America’s economy, security, environment, and quality of life, and we are proud of our industry’s role in keeping our nation moving safely.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story also appears in the November 2022 print edition of the Illinois Business Journal.)

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