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Boston: One Harbor, Two Stories - Public Welfare in the Balance

One Harbor, Two Stories - Public Welfare in the Balance

Part 1 of Series: Disagreements, Docking and Dollars, Oh My…
By Joseph A. Keefe, Senior Editor

On May 10, 1773, a single act by the British Parliament would later incite the dumping of 342 chests of tea by Massachusetts Patriots into Boston Harbor. The event, which would forever alter the course of history and perhaps define the meaning of the American Revolution, was known simply as the Boston Tea Party. Some 233 years later, a bill (SB 1330) now in play in the Massachusetts State Senate, is poised, if passed, to significantly change how modern commerce is regulated in Boston Harbor. A second bill (SB 2391), proposing new rates of pilotage for Boston Harbor and vicinity, has also been introduced and referred to the House Ways and Means committee. By themselves, the two bills have nothing in common beyond the obvious connection to waterborne commerce. In reality, they are part of the larger drama which has finally come to a boil between the state commissioned Boston Pilots and a group of docking pilots. The latter group is primarily employed by one private operator of marine tug boats, Boston Towing and Transportation Co.

Like most places in the United States, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts exercises tight control over the transportation of goods on its roads and navigable waterways. As early as 1783, the Commonwealth passed an Act which set forth specifics on how pilotage would be regulated in Massachusetts ports. Later, in 1797, the Governor authorized the granting of commissions to exercise the business of pilotage and eventually, the Boston Marine Society came to control both the recommendation of pilot candidates in the Port of Boston and their regulation, once installed. The system exists as one of the oldest in the United States and today, the group of ten marine professionals known as the Boston Pilot Association, LLC are the only individuals licensed and authorized to provide service to dock, undock, and guide large ocean vessels to and from the outer sea buoy to the berth. In contrast, the individuals known as “docking pilots,” would like to see that the docking and undocking function of the Boston Pilot duties to become their exclusive domain. Senate Bill 1330, now under consideration in the Massachusetts State Senate, would do just that.

The practice of employing docking pilots, or “docking masters,” as they are known in some places, is not a new concept. In fact, 11 of 25 major ports around the United States employ some sort of docking pilot, but it is also true that this is primarily a northeastern United States phenomenon. In general terms, the docking pilot will usually board a vessel as it approaches the berth, and then provides advice to the Master for the purpose of safely mooring the vessel. Conversely, when a ship sails, the docking pilot will direct tug assist activities and the unmooring operation, after which the harbor pilot will guide the vessel safely to the sea buoy.

In Boston Harbor, no official language exists to require the use of docking pilots and their use has, until recent years, been solely up to the discretion of the ship’s Master-or the owner of that vessel--who might or might not decide that additional assistance was necessary. The Federal government can step in and mandate additional services if it perceives a gap in safety. To date, it has not chosen to do this in the Port of Boston. And, says Gregg Farmer, President of the Boston Pilot Association, “A state commissioned Boston Pilot is required to be on the bridge at all times, whether or not the vessel opts to employ a docking pilot.”

The current tension in Boston Harbor has been building slowly, largely under the radar of the general public and usually intrusive Boston media. Documentation dating from the early 1990’s issued from various parties addresses the qualifications and training of docking pilots in Boston Harbor. As early as 2004, state commissioned Boston Pilots have complained that personnel aboard Boston Towing and Transportation tug boats have routinely refused direction from anyone beyond the docking pilot on a particular movement. The docking pilots in these instances, it just so happens, are employed by Boston Towing and Transportation. And now, Gregg Farmer reports, “Boston Towing refuses to provide a tug boat, unless a docking pilot is also required, something not necessarily specified by their competitors.” The net effect of this policy would be to effectively exclude more than half of the available tug assist equipment in Boston Harbor at any one time, assuming that the Boston Pilot chooses to dock and undock the vessel by himself.

Boston Towing and Transportation, according to spokesman Dave Clark, “provides tug boats and docking pilots as a regular service. This is a contractual matter between us and the client.” Moreover, he maintains that the docking pilots employed by Boston Towing are uniquely qualified to direct and operate BT&T equipment. He goes on to say that they charge a separate fee for the docking pilot on each movement, as do the Boston Pilots, but that Boston Towing’s docking / undocking fees represent a better deal for the marine consumer.

Boston Towing’s primary competition, at this time, is Constellation Towing. Constellation employs just one docking pilot, and does not necessarily require his use on all movements which involve Constellation equipment. A Constellation spokesman also asserted yesterday, “We give our clients the option to use our docking pilot. He is exceptionally well qualified and educated for this purpose. We also have utmost confidence in the ability of the Boston Pilots to accomplish the same tasks.” The contrast in positions between the two firms is stark, and now, employees of Boston Towing have asserted that the Boston Pilots have been deliberately funneling work to their competitors for the purpose of garnering a bigger share of docking pilot fees. For their part, the Boston Pilots acknowledge performing docking and undocking duties-when asked to by others and as mandated by their state commission-but deny any attempt to influence who provides tug services.

All of this could change in the near future, especially if the landscape of tug assist equipment providers is augmented by the introduction of new players. Unofficially, persons close to the issue concede that an announcement is forthcoming in the near future. In the meantime, the urgency of the supporters of Senate Bill 1330 becomes much clearer. If enacted, SB 1330 would stipulate, among other things, the absolute requirement for the use of a docking pilot for harbor transits of regulated vessels. As this article was posted, the bill remains “in study” in the committee for public safety. According to Chris Gregory, a lobbyist employed by the Boston Pilots, “Because the bill is so badly written, that’s probably where it will stay. There is little support for it at this time.” For the record, Gregory confirmed being paid $24,000 by the Boston Pilots in 2005. He also has been active in efforts to secure the Boston Pilots their first rate increase since 2001, pushing forward Senate Bill 2204, and now, the amended version of that document, Senate Bill 2391.

Gregory is not the only lobbyist in the game. The Public Records Division (Lobbyist Section) WEB site maintained by the Secretary of the Commonwealth reveals that Bob Durand was paid $150,000 by Boston Towing & Transportation Co. for the period of 2005. In a conversation late yesterday, Dave Clark also confirmed this relationship. Durand is well placed to provide service in Boston’s rarefied political circles. His previous experience as a State Senator and Secretary of Environmental Affairs affords him unusually wide access on Beacon Hill, and his hefty price tag has certainly not frightened away the clients. His advocacy of Boston Towing’s agenda only underscores the vast amounts of money at stake here. Another well kept secret is that Boston Towing and Transportation is, in reality, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Reinauer Companies, a New York based marine transportation firm.

Quick passage of Senate Bill 1330 could translate into a virtual monopoly in terms of docking pilot services for Durand’s client, which would not only perform the lion’s share of all docking and undocking movements in Boston Harbor, but would also be the beneficiary of increased business from the codified use of docking pilots on marine movements which, until now, were strictly optional. Even Dave Clark concedes, however, that 1330’s status “in study” does not bode well for its eventual passage in its current form.

The route of Senate bill 2391, amended from SB 2204, and a previous edition before that has been no less difficult than that of Senate bill 1330. The Pilot’s proposal to increase rates by approximately 20% as a function of the Consumer Price Index has been pared down in committee to just 11-1/4%. According to Chris Gregory, the reduction is the result of fierce opposition to the rate increase from Boston Towing, among others. He was, however, optimistic that the compromise language of the Bill would come to a (favorable) vote in the near future.

As a regulated body of the State of Massachusetts, the Boston Pilots assert that they have tried to maintain a low profile demeanor in their efforts to settle their differences with the docking pilots. As the stakes become clearer, this may no longer be possible. Increasingly vocal rhetoric from the other side has pushed the issue to the front burner where it will likely remain, until a definitive solution can be agreed upon. One Boston Pilot, who asked to be quoted anonymously, declared, “No one is questioning the competence of the docking pilots. They seem to have a reasonable training program and provide adequate service.”

Indeed, still to be addressed within the language of Senate Bill 1330 remain the issues of establishing minimum qualifications, training standards, and official oversight of this potentially new, state commissioned service. No doubt all of these matters are being discussed in committee. On the waterfront, the two groups of marine professionals continue to jockey for position in what has quickly become a public relations nightmare. Behind the scenes, pending business plans by the various players will ultimately add still more variables to the equation.

Part II Next Week: Training, Qualifications, Limits of Liability, Conflicts of Interest and more…

Send comments to Joseph A. Keefe: jkeefe@maritime-executive.com