Posted by: towmasters | July 31, 2009

Newsletter Roundup, The Latest Towing License Public Squabble & The 30-Day Wonder

The National Mariners Association’s June-July 2009 newsletter, #63, has just been published by NMA Secretary Richard Block.

You might also want to go over to our Marine Industry Newsletters page to read any NMA back issues you’ve missed. While you’re there, check out the offerings from the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and the Offshore Marine Services Association (OMSA). We’re a mariner advocacy organization, as is NMA, and we sometimes find ourselves strongly disagreeing with the safety, licensing and general regulatory agendas of these politically-connected and influential trade associations. But, not surprisingly, we also share a considerable amount of common ground as well, and they do stay well-informed on many issues that affect us both directly and indirectly. This is reflected in their newsletters and they’re surely worth reading regularly if you want to stay in the know.

And that brings us to the July 8th Tugboat Pilot Plan May Have Backfired article by Associated Press (AP) writer Cain Burdeau. AWO’s PR machine quickly over-reacted to that article, as they typically respond to anyone with whom they disagree, by accusing Mr. Burdeau of “mischaracterizing” the issue in a shrill letter to the editor of AP. You can read it on page 8 of their July 17th, 2009 newsletter. Well, AWO wrote the book on mischaracterizing things when it suits them to do so. When we dared to criticize their 30-Day Wonder plan (a license “bridging” provision or “alternative progression”, as it was referred to) for expanding a potentially dangerous loophole in the towing license regulations we were dismissed as a “small number of vocal critics” on page 3 of their Sept. 12, 2008 newsletter. They said that we had “incorrectly characterized it as a reduction in the level of experience required for mariners operating towing vessels.” They went on to make the ludicrous claim that “in the preamble to the final rule the Coast Guard set the record straight on this misunderstanding, noting that ‘the level of experience and training required of the new alternate progression candidates is equivalent to, or even surpasses, the existing requirements.’ AWO had made the same point in a series of visits with congressional staff who raised questions about the proposal last spring.”

Well, shucks, it was all just a big misunderstanding on our part! Ah, yeah. Our point all along was that the existing regulations were badly flawed in that they had allowed the 30-day loophole for the bigger licenses in the first place. The primary arguments used to justify the loophole’s expansion were that it was already allowed for the 500GRT-and-up licenses, that the Designated Examiners (DE’s) would somehow ensure that no unqualified people would slip between the cracks, that sea time gained on any type of vessel is equal to sea time gained on towing vessels and, best of all, that no one was ever really going to do it in 30 days anyway! Right. Not one of the proponents of this regulation change, including the Coast Guard, ever attempted to explain how 30 days could possibly be a suitable training period, and basing new flawed regulations on the proposition that older flawed regulations already allowed a similar practice to take place is poor justification at best. It’s something along the lines of arguing that you should be allowed to have bald tires on your car because, some time ago, it was allowed for trucks. As for setting the record straight the Coast Guard did nothing of the sort. In the Final Rule they simply ignored the warnings and inconvenient facts that were pointed out to them in the letters they received from working towing vessel mariners, including 6 of their own CG-certified DE’s, whom they expect to ensure quality control. They couldn’t even get the basic math right. I quote from page three: “The four opponents of the alternate progression are all currently licensed towing vessel masters.” But if you go to the docket and actually count the comments from those of us who were opposed to it individually you will quickly find that there were, in fact, 12 separate comments from individual mariners. Furthermore, there was another letter from the Master of Towing Vessels Association that, at the time, was representing the views of 62 towing vessel masters. So that puts the count at either 13 or 74 opponents, depending on whether the collective opinions of the MTVA’s members should have counted to the Coast Guard or not. That works out to the CG’s math being off by a factor of at least 3.25 and as much as 18.5 from what they claim.

That was not their only serious math error. In the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) they cited in the 1st column of page 4 , in the Benefits section (beneficial to whom?), the “fact” that candidates for this alternative progression route would have at least 5 years of experience as master as justification for allowing it. The only problem is that they were wrong. It was pointed out to them that the existing requirements for 100 and 200GRT licenses, the intended beneficiaries of this scheme, would have allowed mariners with only 34 years of sea time as master, and none of it on towing vessels, to take advantage of this intentional loophole. They acknowledged the mistake in the 3rd column of page 4 in the Final Rule, but treated it as if it were just a simple clerical error. They offered absolutely no explanation or analysis as to how their sea time discrepancy of 2040% less time (40% for all of those with 100GRT licenses, the vast majority) than what was originally called for in the NPRM would affect said justification. If their math was that sloppy then why should their safety analysis be considered any more credible? You can go and check it out for yourself anytime at Federal Docket ID USCG-2006-26202. The comments, both for and against, are all there along with the supporting documents.

AWO was, however, correct in part of their assessment of us. We are small, and we’ve been vocal. Critics? You bet. And why shouldn’t we be? Serious debates about important regulatory policy that directly affects our safety, the public’s safety, and the environment and transportation infrastructure deserve nothing less than to be settled out in the open. The logic, clarity and persuasiveness of the respective intellectual arguments, not by how “big” you are, who you know at Coast Guard HQ and in the halls of Congress, or how many other people agree with you, should be the deciding factors. Before I’m accused of being naive, I’ll reiterate the key word: should. There’s the way it ought to be, and then there’s the way it is. AWO’s the way it is. We’re working towards the way it ought to be. Doing away with the 30-Day Wonder loophole for all licenses, regardless of their tonnage, would be a meaningful measure that the Coast Guard could take to improve safety and send the right message to the public, mariners, and the industry as a whole: cutting corners is not acceptable. We stand by our more-than-generous original recommendation that a minimum of 6-9 months (measured in 12-hour days) of additional experience on towing vessels, depending on the type and quality of prior experience the individual has, is reasonable, fair and in the best overall interests of safety. They’re not going to be able to make good judgment calls on this from the hills of West Virginia, either. You can rest assured that, from Martinsburg, New York Harbor’s East River, Puget Sound’s Admiralty Inlet and the Mississippi River’s Algiers Point are just abstract places they can look at, but not really appreciate or know much about, on Google Earth. They’re close enough to the Kanawha that they could arrange to have some of their key personnel take a few rides (at night, too!) on the towboats and try to get at least a little bit of an idea of what they’re really involved in, but will they ever bother to take that step? Regardless, the OCMI’s at the different ports, preferably with substantial input from experienced civilian mariners who really know the local waters, need to be making these kinds of calls.

This issue isn’t going away. It’s like a persistent spill of heavy oil: until the responsible parties clean up their mess it will just sit there, like a beach full of reeking tar balls and strewn with dead birds and fish, continuing to stink and ooze. Will AWO and the Coast Guard eventually come to their senses, or do we have to wait for another unnecessary tragedy to prove beyond all doubt what common sense should have clearly told us? Just remember that this all started because of an accident in an otherwise obscure bayou in southern Alabama back in 1993.

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