Regulation gap raises safety concerns for US port pilots

Pilots at the Port of Charleston (above) could be affected if the regulation conflict is not resolved. Credit: SCPA

Harbour pilots working vessels at two major US East Coast container ports could be left vulnerable to safety hazards unless a conflict in regulations overseen by two different agencies can be resolved, according to pilot boat officials.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requires all vessels 19.8 m (65 ft) or longer be restricted to speeds of 10 kn or less in certain locations along the US East Coast to reduce the threat of ship collisions with North Atlantic right whales, considered to be one of the world’s most endangered mammals.

At the same time, marine diesel engines covered under the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Tier 4 standards for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions – for which a three-year phase in period ended last year – cannot be adequately installed in pilot boats less than 19.8 m long due to space restrictions.

The way the regulations work against each other in practice is coming into play at the Port of Savannah. Overseen by the Georgia Ports Authority, the port is in the midst of a USD973 million harbor deepening and expansion project, which includes an 11.3 km (7-mile) extension of its outer channel, completed earlier this year.

To meet and board ships at the extended distance, pilot boats must not only be able to travel at higher speeds but also be maneuverable in sea-states that can be more severe, which requires higher throttling power, according to pilots. However, the larger vessels required by EPA’s Tier 4 engines place them under NOAA’s 10 kn rule, which pilots say can impair safety and efficiency.

“Any pilot on the East Coast will face this problem if they need to expand and go further offshore,” Savannah Pilots Association president Robert Thompson told Fairplay.

Thompson said that when EPA was petitioned for a waiver to its regulation, the pilots were told by the agency that it “didn’t have that tool in their toolbox”, Thompson said. “We needed to have these boats under construction by now, because they take 18 months to build. By that time, our dredging project will be completed.”

The issue surfaced during a panel hearing on 26 April when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was called to Capitol Hill to testify on his agency’s budget. Pruitt told US Representative Buddy Carter, who represents the port in the US Congress, that he would check with the Savannah pilots' boat builder, Seattle, Washington-based Vigor, to try to remedy the problem, pledging to respond in 30 days. Sources at Vigor did not respond for comment.

GPA Chief Operating Officer Edward McCarthy acknowledged that the conflict is a problem that needed to be rectified. “The further out you go the rougher the seas and the more time it takes to get out there, so we want to make sure our pilots have the most effective vessels, and we support them in finding the best way to resolve this,” McCarthy told Fairplay.

A spokesman for the pilots at the nearby Port of Charleston, which is also undergoing a major deepening project that includes extending the channel, said there are significant safety risks for not having the appropriate boat and engine for the job.

“We can’t sacrifice horsepower in a heavier sea-state when the purpose of the vessel is to board large ships,” John Cameron, Executive Director of the Charleston Branch Pilots’ Association, told Fairplay. Cameron explained that pilot boats executing a boarding operation with a containership, for example, must be able to throttle higher than 10 kn in order to maintain positioning and avoid putting pilots’ lives at risk.

For ships going out to sea, "the 45 seconds or so that it takes for a [returning] pilot to climb back down the ladder, a pilot boat has to go through a couple of cycles of full-ahead and back down again. The speed issue I don’t think was ever sufficiently vetted in the formulation of the [NOAA] regulation.”

Cameron said that the Charleston pilots are “a few years away” from needing to replace their boats, “but the next time we need to build new ones, now that the [NOx] Tier 4 applicability has arrived, it will be an issue for us as well.”

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

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