More US-flag ships found substandard post-El Faro

ACP was created in part due to concerns about the competitiveness of the US flag in global markets. Credit: OSG

Large commercial US-flag ships continue to be in danger of accidents due to poor condition and safety lapses more than two years after the sinking of the El Faro.

Appearing before Congress on 30 January, US Coast Guard (USCG) Rear Admiral John Nadeau, Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy, testified that ongoing inspections of ships enrolled in the agency’s Alternative Compliance Program (ACP) are revealing evidence of safety breakdowns.

“I have a team out visiting what I view as the high-risk vessels that are enrolled in ACP, based on their age, their history, and their casualties. The findings indicate that it is not unique to the El Faro, we have other ships out there in substandard condition,” Nadeau told members of the Maritime Transportation subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Transportation & Infrastructure committee.

“All elements of the safety framework, the owners and operators, the class societies, and the coastguard, must improve.”

Nadeau told Fairplay in January that he was overseeing a sweeping review of third-party organisations used by his agency, in particular the ACP, a streamlined inspection process for US-flagged vessels in which the coastguard delegates authority for certificates of inspection to authorised class societies, such as ABS.

The move to improve its oversight is in response to recommendations following the investigation into the deadly October 2015 El Faro accident in which all 33 crew were killed.

Based on results of an initial ACP oversight exam conducted in 2015 and 2016, “it was clear that multiple US cargo vessels were operating for prolonged periods in a substandard material condition”, the USCG’s Marine Investigation Board (MIB) report stated.

“Although the coastguard’s focused oversight on the ACP targeted vessels corrected the most egregious cases of non-compliance, a seminal change in the overall management and execution of the programme is urgently needed to ensure safe conditions are sustained on the enrolled US commercial vessels,” according to the MIB.

Nadeau testified that the latest information from his investigation team confirm the concerns raised by the MIB.

“We have moved out to reform our oversight program,” Nadeau said. “It starts with governance and having the proper people in place with the proper focus, to call attention and hold others accountable. That also involves having the right policy and procedures in place, the right information management systems to capture the data, collect it, and then engage with our third parties and hold them accountable. It’s an ongoing effort that will take us a little time, but we’re launched and underway.”

Currently there are 429 out of 1,167 eligible vessels enrolled in ACP, or 37%, according to data provided by the USCG. Eligible vessels are defined as US-flag, self-propelled, inspected vessels and include tankers, container ships, ro-ro vessels, general cargo, and dry bulk vessels.

Before the ACP was launched in 1997, ships were inspected for the same criteria twice: once by the USCG and a second time by an authorised classification society. “This was viewed as an inefficient use of time for both the USCG as well as vessel owners,” according to a USCG-sponsored study conducted in 2012 by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). “This programme has caused a progressive shift in inspection responsibilities from the USCG inspectors’ to classification society surveyors, the study noted.

The WPI study found that improvements to the programme’s oversight could be achieved in part by refining the Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database, which is used by the agency to record and generate official documents such as vessel Certificates of Inspection and Certificates of Documentation.

Five years later, the MIB pointed to issues with the MISLE database as well, including its unavailability to classification society surveyors, who are “often unaware of outstanding requirements and special notes on the vessels they are surveying”.

Nadeau acknowledged at the hearing that MISLE “has not been able to capture some of the information we want it to capture, so we’re making changes now to improve that system”.

When asked by US representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon if he had the resources to carry out the task of improving third-party oversight, Nadeau said he could always do more with more funding, but asserted also that it was not simply a manpower issue.

“If you just gave me another thousand marine inspectors it wouldn’t solve this problem,” Nadeau responded. “I need to have a small core of people that are highly trained and efficient and can stay focused on this area until we get it right.”

Contact John Gallagher and follow him on Twitter:@JohnAGallagher1

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