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One year after rollout, Subchapter M still a work needing progress

Jul 31, 2019 04:42 PM
The towboat Amber Brittany guides a 15-barge tow down the Ohio River near Marietta, Ohio, in 2010. Fifteen years in the making, Subchapter M requires 25 percent of a towing company’s fleet to have a Coast Guard certificate of inspection (COI) by July 22. Some in the industry say that is unlikely to happen, especially if compliance isn’t enforced.

Courtesy Mike/Flickr

The towboat Amber Brittany guides a 15-barge tow down the Ohio River near Marietta, Ohio, in 2010. Fifteen years in the making, Subchapter M requires 25 percent of a towing company’s fleet to have a Coast Guard certificate of inspection (COI) by July 22. Some in the industry say that is unlikely to happen, especially if compliance isn’t enforced.

As the latest deadline approached for the inspection of towing vessels under Subchapter M, industry members said the process was still rocky, with inconsistencies in the interpretation of the regulations, unpredictable wait times for the processing of applications, and questions about enforcement for those who didn’t meet the July 22 target date.

“Everybody is waiting to see what the Coast Guard does for enforcement,” said Kevin Wakefield, operations manager for Decatur Marine, a maritime consulting company and an approved third-party organization (TPO) for Subchapter M. “There are some companies that are not doing anything, that are waiting for the last minute (and) will not likely meet the 25 percent deadline.”

Towing companies have two options to comply with Subchapter M: annual Coast Guard inspections, or the use of a towing safety management system (TSMS) approved and verified by a TPO. Under Subchapter M, at least 25 percent of a company’s fleet (vessels 26 feet in length or greater) must obtain a certificate of inspection (COI) by July 22, 2019, with 50 percent by July 20, 2020; 75 percent by July 19, 2021; and 100 percent by July 19, 2022. Single-vessel owners have until July 20, 2020, to get their certificate.

The COI is good for five years, although vessels must be re-inspected by the Coast Guard or re-audited by a TPO each year. There are about 5,500 towing vessels in the industry. Erik Johnson, coordinator of the Coast Guard’s Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise, said about 75 percent of the industry is using the TSMS option.

Subchapter M has been about 15 years in the making, yet bugs are still being worked out. The final rule was published on June 20, 2016, and the first effective date of compliance was July 20, 2018.

“I don’t know what the exact numbers are now, but I can tell you we are nowhere close nationwide to the 1,500 COIs that should have been issued to one-fourth of the fleet,” said Chris Parsonage, executive director of the Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau, an approved TPO.

Parsonage also said he has heard from the Coast Guard that it has “no planned enforcement action” for those companies that don’t meet the 25 percent COI requirement. “For those who are spending a lot of time and effort to get it, it is kind of disappointing that those folks who have been waiting and waiting are going to be possibly rewarded,” he said.

“I personally think that until people start receiving penalties, and there’s enforcement from the Coast Guard and tied-up vessels, that people (won’t take) this seriously,” Wakefield said.

Johnson said the regulations are clear about companies getting 25 percent of their fleet inspected by July 22. “That’s the requirement. We are obligated to stick to that. We just have to see how this plays out for these companies once that date rolls around,” he said in early June.

Mike Reagoso, left, vice president of McAllister Towing’s mid-Atlantic operations, discusses the Coast Guard’s COI process with Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Brown, center, a marine inspector from Sector Maryland-National Capital Region, and Robert Dempsey, port captain for McAllister Towing, at the company’s facility in Baltimore in early February.

U.S. Coast Guard photo

Johnson said his records at the end of May showed that the industry was close to meeting the inspection deadline. “Between already-issued COIs and applications that are in the pipeline, we’re at about 22.5 percent,” he said. “It’s right about where we should be tracking. … That’s why I’m saying, overall, things aren’t so bad.”

He said the Coast Guard is doing everything it can to reach out to operators who are still not on track. A letter was sent out recently to companies reminding them of the upcoming deadline.

“Believe it or not, we did shake the tree, and some companies have fallen out of it and called us,” Johnson said. “We realize the Coast Guard is still learning this process, as well as the industry. And we know the companies that are putting in a good-faith effort, that are working with us, and we’re going to work with those guys.”

Lack of consistency in how Subchapter M is enforced has been a persistent complaint in the first year after the rollout, according to industry leaders.

“Too often what we have seen from the Coast Guard during Sub M implementation is, ‘I’m over here in my silo, and I’m kind of figuring this out de novo, and you’re over there in your area of operations, and you’re figuring out the same issue — which, by the way, is not geographic-dependent,’” said Jennifer Carpenter, executive vice president of the American Waterways Operators (AWO). “We’re not sharing information. And that really frustrates people.”

It can lead to companies shopping for OCMIs, the Coast Guard’s officers in charge of marine inspections, who are responsible for issuing COIs. “One of the larger (Coast Guard) sectors is known to be difficult in the process, and companies are not going to go there if they have another option,” Parsonage said.

The Coast Guard maintains that OCMIs must have the autonomy to make different rulings based on the conditions in each port. “Even sister vessels in two different ports could have two different circumstances,” Johnson said. According to industry sources, the discrepancies have included differences in manning requirements.

Operators also might not be aware of all the factors involved in an inspection. The Coast Guard has responded to concerns from the AWO and the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) about individual cases.

“When we dig down to the specific vessels, we find that oftentimes it is a situation where it is two different ports, and even though all things on the surface appear to be the same, they are not,” Johnson said.

Owners and operators who select the towing safety management system (TSMS) option for Subchapter M compliance must complete management and vessel audits. This is done through a third-party organization or group that can perform the work of a TPO.

The Coast Guard has been taking steps to improve the consistency of Subchapter M enforcement, he said. A new form was created to make it easier for OCMIs in different districts to communicate, and each district has a towing vessel coordinator. Johnson holds towing policy meetings twice a month, teleconferencing with all of the vessel coordinators to talk about specific issues that have arisen. Monthly conference calls are also held with the chief inspectors and with TPOs.

The Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise (www.dco.uscg.mil/tvncoe) is an excellent resource as well, Johnson said. In addition to policy guidelines, the site includes an interactive program called TugSafe that allows operators to plug in company data and receive a tailored inspection list. “This is one of the best ways to ensure consistency,” he said.

But the processing of COIs is still unpredictable. “There are some (Coast Guard) sectors that are, with Sub M issues, handling the situation quite effectively,” Parsonage said. “There are others that are taking an inordinate amount of time to get COIs.” Processing of inspection forms ranges from 24 hours to six months, he said.

Wakefield said his experience has been positive. “Some units are quicker processing applications than others. But as far as the customer service standpoint, I haven’t had any complaints,” he said.

Another area of frustration is how inspections are being handled for those companies that adopted a towing safety management system, which was designed to make the Subchapter M process smoother. The Coast Guard has published several policy guidelines to reduce the burdens of TSMS audits and to expedite initial inspections. “They are doing a lot of good things,” Carpenter said.

But problems still remain. Some operators who opted for the TSMS approach have told her that vessel inspections can take six hours. “Is that longer than a person using the Coast Guard option?” Carpenter said. “That’s not happening across the board. But you can imagine that word gets around and its very dispiriting to folks who have worked hard and genuinely believe in the TSMS option.”

Johnson acknowledged that this was an issue early in the process. “There was a lot of that in the beginning, where some OCMIs were asking for everything,” he said. “Our OCMIs are getting more comfortable with the (TSMS) process.”

Many of those involved in the process said it will be better in the next round of inspections. “I want to take the long view, I do think the glass is half full,” Carpenter said.

“One way or another, we are getting there,” Johnson said. “And 22.5 percent of COIs either issued or in the pipeline tells me that the majority of the industry is not sitting back.”

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