Does the New Coast Guard Report Indicate a Post SS El Faro Victory for Maritime Safety?

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On the surface, the statistic sounds horrible. 

Of 1,459 ships already inspected by the privatized American Bureau of Shipping under the privatized Alternative Compliance Program, the Coast Guard found 1,168 deficiencies missed by the ABS.

That averages out to 2.36 serious misses on each ship relying on the ABS for safety, the Coast Guard says in its first annual report on the safety of America’s merchant fleet in the aftermath of the loss of the SS El Faro. 

Interpret that skeptically and one might conclude that nothing has changed.  The same ABS faults that were cited in the El Faro tragedy are still present.  The ship surveying company is missing far too many safety deficiencies.  

But another way of looking at it is that the Coast Guard has implemented and maintained a crackdown on inspections — and did so throughout 2017, even before the weight of the Marine Board of Inspection and the later Commandant’s actions kicked in. 

It was only one-year ago that the MBI called out the ABS and its own inspection services for being too lax and noting that the El Faro was sent to sea with longstanding, serious safety problems that affected the seaworthiness of the vessel. 

And the Commandant’s call to action was only made on December 21, 2017. 

But the studies here — covering the calendar year 2017 — would show us that the Coast Guard was already more tightly reviewing ABS work long before the MBI suggested the same. 

The inspections of the private inspectors should be even tougher in the 2018 report, given the weight of the Commandant’s report, and formal oversight of ABS by a new group within the Coast Guard. 

This day-by-day attention to safety codes and details may be the lasting legacy of the loss of the SS El Faro.  

After the Marine Electric went down in 1983, the MBI’s recommendation to abolish private inspections was not implemented. 

Still, the crackdown on unsafe ships helped produce a 30 year period of maritime safety with no major ship casualties in the American merchant marine. 

It’s believed that at least 10 old ships were scrapped as a result of tougher inspections post-El Faro.  

Almost certainly more are on the way in the domestic Jones Act fleet, yes, but also in the antique fleet of ships leased to the military for strategic sealift purposes.  There the average age is more than 40-years-old, twice the age when most ships are scrapped, and senior military leaders say many are so unsafe, they cannot be relied upon. 

Scrapping the old ships will help force the building of new ships and the true purpose of the Jones Act may finally come into play.  For decades now, the Jones Act has indirectly kept old rust buckets in service far past their useful lifetimes.  Its true purpose was designed to build new ships — not keep the old ones on life support. 

New ships are expensive to build, true enough. And the expense may well be passed on to shippers and consumers in the form of higher rates. 

But that’s preferable to the alternatives of placing merchant mariners at risk.  

Or, if you need a larger cause than that to close the deal, the cost of new ships is far preferable to shackling the projected force of the US military to unsafe and unreliable vessels that would be rejected by many “flags of convenience” countries. 

Editor’s note:  The Coast Guard answered my questions with this statement, which I take as more or less confirming my conclusions in a very careful manner.  In essence, the ABS may not have erred in its inspections; in some cases conditions may have changed. (Nevertheless, a lot of variances!)

Mr. Frump,

In response to your question below, there may have been instances in 2017 that Coast Guard inspectors found deficiencies for ACP/MSP ships that were not identified during previous surveys by recognized organizations (RO). However, it would be inaccurate to classify them all as errors because there may have been legitimate reasons why a Coast Guard exam might reveal a deficiency an RO survey did not. For example, the deficiency may have surfaced between when the RO survey and the Coast Guard exam occurred; or there could be a variation in the examination procedures or scope of survey that needs to be addressed. In 2017, the Coast Guard was not documenting this type of data, so it’s not possible to tell which deficiencies were the result of “errors.” What’s important to note is that under new Coast Guard policy, if a Coast Guard inspector identifies a deficiency that a RO/class surveyor did not, there is a procedure in place to document it and understand why it occurred and remedy it for the future. As of July 2018, the Coast Guard will be documenting these instances and this data will appear in future annual reports.

Please let me know if I can be of further assistance. 

Best Regards,

LT Amy Midgett

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