US Coast Guard seeks tighter grip over third parties in wake of El Faro sinking

USCG accused of not overseeing the 'third party' in El Faro case. Credit: Getty Images

Results of the investigation into the sinking of the ro-ro vessel El Faro has placed overhauling the US Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) third-party management regime at the top of the priority list for the agency’s highest safety official.

“The El Faro final action memo is clear and unambiguous: we have an obligation to do better oversight” of third parties, Rear Admiral John Nadeau, the agency’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, told Fairplay.

In the action memo, released by the USCG on 21 December, Nadeau’s boss, USCG Commandant Paul Zukunft, emphasised that as the lead agency of the US flag, the coastguard is ultimately responsible for monitoring third parties, as well as for guaranteeing the effectiveness of vessel inspections and surveys that the agency has delegated those third parties to carry out.

“Yet the coastguard failed to adequately oversee the third party in this case, and the investigation reveals that the coastguard has not sustained the proficiency and policy framework to do so in general. The coastguard is fully committed to rectifying the shortcomings that led to these failures.”

In practical terms, it will mean creating a separate group at USCG headquarters in Washington, DC, that is responsible solely for third-party oversight.

“Right now there is no ‘office of oversight’ and there’s no single person responsible,” Nadeau said. “We have disparate processes, so we need to stitch those together and have a small cell that’s responsible for connecting all this together and making sure we execute.”

With the failings in oversight made public through the investigation into the El Faro disaster – in which all 33 crew members onboard were killed – the initial focus will be improving oversight of classification societies.

Through a scheme called the Alternate Compliance Program (ACP) that started in 1995, class carries out multiple functions on the USCG’s behalf that affect ship safety. It was revealed during the El Faro investigation that class society ABS – on which the United States relies for 92% of its deep-draft commercial fleet – “failed to uncover or otherwise resolve longstanding deficiencies” that affected the safety of vessels on “multiple occasions”, according to Zukunft’s memo.

“Back when it started, we had committed to maintaining the capability for proper oversight” of the ACP, Nadeau said. “Fast forward 20 years, and what the outcome of El Faro tells us is, we didn’t quite follow through with that.”

Nadeau pointed out that changes in the shipping industry over the last two decades contributed to the problem, including far more vessels involved in the programme, as well as a lack of a formal set of expectations for how third parties are used, and their obligations to the flag state – until the International Maritime Organization’s Code for Recognized Organizations, which entered into force in 2015.

“Those obligations didn’t exist in 1995,” Nadeau said.

Because the US flag relies more than ever on third parties for carrying out safety obligations on a number of fronts – in the towing sector through Subchapter M, for example, and under its ballast water treatment system certification (where third-party laboratories conduct ballast water equipment testing) – it is imperative that the agency has the right procedures and governance in place to manage them all, Nadeau asserted.

“It’s also something that the shipping industry has clamoured for, because they find they get real efficiencies from it,” he said. “And because those third parties are doing things globally, they see innovations and gain perspectives that we may not necessarily see here as a US agency, so we benefit as well.”

Contact John Gallagher at and follow him on Twitter:@JohnAGallagher1

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