New Legislation Could Produce “Worst Ships” List for Public Inspection

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A bill passed by both houses of Congress could result in a list of “America’s Worst Ships” in the merchant marine, if it is signed into law and funded.

“The families of the El Faro crew deserve much of the credit for getting many of these potentially lifesaving measures through Congress,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a co-sponsor of the legislation. “Hopefully, other mariners will benefit from these safety improvements and be spared the tragic fate befallen the El Faro and its victims.”

The key words here are “potentially” and “hopefully.” For while the bill addresses many of the shortcomings flagged by the NTSB and Coast Guard in maritime safety, it does not provide funding.

The “ship list” may be among its most pragmatic suggestions — and most easily enacted.  The American merchant marine is filled with very old ships, many past the normal 20-year-retirement age.

The Coast Guard keeps public lists of foreign flag vessels entering US ports if they are considered safety hazards but not of American flag ships. The Coast Guard has kept a “Ten Worst” list — its informal name — for several years.  The El Faro was added to the list shortly before it sailed.

The bill also states that the Coast Guard must set up a department to monitor privatized ship inspection by such agencies as the American Bureau of Shipping — which was faulted for letting unsafe ships sail to sea.

The challenge in all of this is many-fold.  The first is funding — with public Coast Guard priorities trending toward ice breakers in the Arctic and drug interdiction in the sub-tropics.

For example, the bill authorizes a study to triple the number of Coast Guard Traveling Inspectors — who have been effective in shutting down old rust buckets. But that’s a study — not a funded mandate.

“I’m glad to see the bill,” said one maritime safety expert, “but in a way this illustrates the problem that maritime safety faces:  Everything literally requires an Act of Congress — an addition to law.

“What we need is an agency like the FAA where Congress delegates decisions to an agency filled with professionals who can make common sense decisions.”

The El Faro sank in 2015 with the loss of 33 men and women.  Review boards faulted the captain for sailing too close to Hurricane Joaquin, but also noted that the operator, Tote Maritime, had a poor safety culture and should have given more shoreside support.

Moreover, the investigators found that the twin sister of the El Faro, the El Yunque, was in bad shape — to a point where inspectors drove it to the scrap yard.

The bill’s maritime safety provisions require, among other things:

  • Freight vessels be outfitted with distress signaling and locating technology, float-free voyage data recorders with an emergency position indicating radio beacon and high water alarm sensors;
  • The Coast Guard to establish an anonymous safety alert pilot program, allowing crew to communicate urgent safety concerns directly with the Coast Guard
  • Vessels receive timely and detailed weather forecasts;
  • A review of Coast Guard policies regarding ventilators, openings, fire dampers, stability standards and lifesaving equipment, such as survival suits and life jackets;
  •  A review of Coast Guard policies and procedures for documenting major conversions of vessels;
  • Improved training programs for Coast Guard personnel to conduct comprehensive and targeted oversight of all third-party organizations that act on behalf of the Coast Guard; and,
  • An audit of safety management systems to ensure the safety of ships at sea and directs the Coast Guard commandant to consider additional guidance or rulemaking in response to any deficiencies identified in the audit.

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