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MarEx Mailbag

The Mailbag is heavy this week, partly owing to some mail that piled up during MarEx editor Joe Keefe’s holiday. This week, MarEx readers sound off on three different topics. Four weeks ago, our lead piece referenced the DOJ’s most recent press release on the COSCO BUSAN allision, the fate of the pilot in that matter, and the potential ramifications for marine pilots everywhere. The article, entitled, “Game Changer: Reflecting Back on the COSCO BUSAN Debacle,” was, far and away, the most widely opened article in this e-newsletter in more than two years. Not surprisingly, the article also triggered a flood of mail in similar volumes. A very interesting letter was received last week from a former Coast Guard inspector, who addressed some comments on the matter (by other MarEx readers). The letter is worth sharing with MarEx readers. You can read our July 30th editorial by clicking HERE. Or, simply read on to see what our reader thought about the matter:

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Joe: I was the lead investigating officer for the Coast Guard's "Part 4" marine casualty investigation for the Cosco Busan. At the time of the accident I was serving as the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) for Sector Hampton Roads, VA. I volunteered to assist the Investigations Division at Sector San Francisco, and when I arrived I was designated by the Officer-in-Charge, Marine Inspection as the lead investigating officer. I completed my report in March 2008, but because I left the Coast Guard before the report was published, it was signed, with minor revisions and additions, by the SIO in San Francisco. I read your recent editorial and must say that it pains me to see the relationship between the Coast Guard and industry adversely affected by fear of being prosecuted. The truth is that criminal prosecutions of mariners stemming from a marine casualty are as rare as an honest politician. In fact the odds of administrative action against a mariner's license for a marine casualty are also extremely low. During my nine years as the SIO in Hampton Roads we averaged 60 to 75 suspension and revocation cases per year, but only about four administrative hearings a year. Most of the cases involved drugs, alcohol related offenses, fraud, and violent conduct. Very few license actions were taken for offenses that caused marine casualties, and in most cases they were settled with letters of warning or probationary terms that included remedial training. And those numbers are from a port that was consistently one of the most active suspension and revocation ports in the Coast Guard. During that same time frame (March 1997 to September 2008) we did not have a single criminal prosecution for an incident stemming from a marine casualty. Considering that there are more than 15,000 reportable marine casualties a year in the U.S., it would be a mistake to conclude that mariners should fear criminal prosecution because of the sentence imposed on Captain Cota. Now let's take a look at that sentence. As someone with intimate knowledge of the facts, having interviewed Captain Cota and having listened to the Voyage Data Recorder tapes, I am absolutely convinced the sentence was appropriate, even if unprecedented. I believe that any professional mariner who had witnessed the interview and listened to those tapes would be appalled and embarrassed at the performance of Captain Cota on that fateful day. Let's review: Without conducting a proper master/pilot exchange, Captain Cota departed a safe berth in near zero visibility. Over the next 25 minutes he steadily increased speed to more than 11 knots without so much as taking a single fix of the vessel's position. Just before Captain Cota was asked by the Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service whether he still intended to pass under the delta-echo span of the bridge he was engaged not in navigating the ship but in ordering a bowl of steamed rice from the steward. He did not know where he was until the chief mate called out on the radio "The tower! The tower!" And yes, in my book his actions were criminally negligent. Comparing Captain Cota's sentence for negligent actions to the intentional actions of mariners involved in pollution dumping incidents is a mistake. Captain Cota's actions caused an allision with a highway bridge that could easily have resulted in far more significant damage and the potential for a massive loss of life. That is not true of people who illegally discharge oil at sea, as reprehensible as that is. And It's important to remember that Captain Cota's sentence was also based on his deliberate actions to conceal the full extent of his medical problems from the Coast Guard. He was not medically competent to hold his license, he knew so, and yet he continued to pilot ships. The purpose of a marine casualty investigation is not to fix blame or assign liability, which is why there were other investigations (I believe the number was as many as nine, including an investigation of the investigation) of this marine casualty by competent investigators of every sort. It is also not my intention to fix blame or liability solely on Captain Cota in this e-mail. If you read the Coast Guard report, you will see that it discusses the many systems failures that created the circumstances for this marine casualty to occur, including weaknesses in Coast Guard procedures, the pilot association, actions of the ship's crew, and breakdowns in the Safety Management System of the operators. I look forward to the results of the other prosecutions in this case. I also sincerely hope that everyone learns the real lessons of the Cosco Busan, and take away more than just "Plead the fifth if the Coast Guard asks you questions." Jerry Crooks MarEx Editor’s Remarks: I can’t add much to this letter except to say that it comes from a position of knowledge and experience. It does give us all something to think about.

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The next two letters reference our August 13th lead editorial, entitled, “CBP, IMCA & OMSA: Oh, My!” In that piece, we noted that U.S. Customs & Border Patrol was moving (quickly) to change enforcement parameters for Jones Act in the offshore services sector. We said that the timing of the move was curious and also reported that the swiftness of the deadlines for comments and/or objections was alarming foreign-registered owners and their clients. We then asked, “What’s the rush?” Two readers weighed in on the matter. You can read their comments below and you can also read the editorial by clicking HERE.

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Dear Mr. Keefe: I believe that there is a message?and hardly a subtle one?to be learned from "CBP, IMCA & OMSA: Oh My!" There is little doubt that the offshore petroleum industry is not one of the fair-haired ones in the eyes of many, both within Washington and without. Whereas it would be a virtual paradise if and when we can free ourselves from our addiction to petroleum (as the so-called Apollo Project apparently proposes) there are initially two caveats to be observed: (1) we must define the word "ourselves," which is not the United States alone, but must include all nations?particularly including India, China, and certainly the major petroleum producers around the world; and (2) whatever improvements can be made must be accomplished in an orderly, rational manner. I suspect that the Jones Act flap as it affects the offshore petroleum industry is a Washingtonian ruse to discourage further production in that area. We should be weaning ourselves, as defined in (1) above, away from imported oil, and even domestic oil, as we develop the efficient and affordable alternatives. The latter is a process that will eventually be sorely needed, to be sure, but, even with the warning, as in (2) above, it will not happen overnight, and redefining the Jones Act as described is certainly not an orderly, rational approach. We must never forget that while we have internal combustion engines and combustion-based processes, we must continue to support a worldwide economy, even though future undiscovered technologies, which are today perhaps only gleams in the eyes of a few of us, will rescue us from the "global warming" phenomenon. The clock is running, but we will survive?all of us as in (1) above. Where, oh where, is Lifebuoy Soap when we need it? Sincerely, William duBarry Thomas MarEx Editor’s Remarks: I’m still digesting this one, but the reader feels (if I understand him correctly) that the changes – if finalized – could slow or discourage offshore production in the U.S. Gulf. If that was his point, then I think IMCA would agree with him. Here is one more on this subject:

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Mr. Keefe, Your article was very informative. In answer to your question, “… what’s the rush?”, I believe there are U.S. vessels capable of both the transportation and the subsea work. Perhaps not enough, but in these economic times, giving the American worker and his company all the leverage they can get, will ease some citizen’s financial worries. The bottom line is the oilfield sector is faltering and this could be a swift move to help alleviate some of the economic crisis in this sector, and the country. By returning to the core and intent of the Jones Act, Americans can keep jobs over cheaper foreign labor. What we can do is make the customers (oil companies), hire US flagged vessels IF they are available. If they are not then outside companies can pick up the jobs. I do think this is already the case, but we are just not looking at it that way. Thanks for taking the time to read my response. Sincerely, Name withheld Upon Request MarEx Remarks: A couple of comments here. In my editorial, I did admit that “The CBP-proposed changes might be exactly the right thing to do.” I also asked, “What’s the rush?” and, to be honest, I have never in my life seen something fly through Washington as fast as this particular initiative to change a set of rules. Beyond this, the collective apathy about the matter baffles me. Although the editorial got excellent “click-through” traffic on our e-news and WEB site, it also evoked little response from any party. This is a big deal – one which I would have thought would have stirred strong interest and/or emotions. Apparently not. Also and for the record, we invited both IMCA and OMSA to provide a “point-counterpoint” debate in our publication. Both declined. Go figure.

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The next four letters reference our August 20th lead editorial, entitled, “TWIC: No Big Deal (Any More). In that piece, I detailed my experiences – mostly positive – in obtaining my TWIC credential. TWIC, anything but a smooth registration process in the beginning, according to many, appears to be settling down. You can read last week’s editorial by clicking HERE. Or, you can read what our readers had to say on the matter:

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Joe, After I went through all the trouble to get my TWIC card, it got me thinking. How many identification documents do I have? Here is the list that I came up with for current picture ID's excluding Social Security Cards, stores (Sam's Club) and the like. I never have understood by someone with a U.S. Merchant Mariners Document requires a TWIC card. I count a total of 8 government and employer ID's. No identity crisis here! U.S. Passport Texas Drivers License ExxonMobil Employee ID U.S. Merchant Mariners Document U.S. Uniformed Services (U.S. Navy Retired) ID Texas A&M University at Galveston ID (Adjunct Faculty) Texas A&M University at College Station Faculty ID TWIC Best Regards Name withheld Upon Request MarEx Editor’s Remarks: The preceding letter was entitled, “Too Many ID Cards." Indeed. Here’s another opinion:

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Joe The Oakland, CA TWIC Office was real easy. I made an appointment for my TWIC Card for the 15th of February at 10 AM. It took 30 Minutes for the processing end. On the 24th the Oakland, CA TWIC Office notified me, that my card was ready for pick-up, after being told it would take at least 4 weeks. This must be a new Government efficiency. I used the Card at the Sacramento Airport as an ID. The security guy showed me what is on the front of the card when held under a special Blue Light. He even revealed my life's history after he swiped the card through a card reader. Most impressive I must say. I enjoy your magazine tremendously. Best Regards, Klaus Nien Chapter President of CAMM San Francisco Bay MarEx: An interesting letter. I must admit that the “data” imbedded on the card is worrisome. If a security guard can read your information, I’m guessing that anyone can. Also, I know of at least one person who renewed their Passport early so as to avoid (at least for the duration of their next Passport) the new “Information Chip” that is imbedded in the front cover of all new U.S. Passports. Read on for another opinion:

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Mr. Keefe, So now the world is safe for democracy! Seriously, what the TWIC system did was to identify all of the honest people, and nothing more, at a huge expense and ensuing bureaucratic boondoggle. Anyone wanting to commit a maritime crime will simply paddle up in a canoe, hijack a tanker truck, or parachute into a facility and do what they please. I feel no safer today than I did before this system was implemented. Best Regards, Mark Usinger MarEx Editor’s Remarks: Well, I guess that I don’t feel a whole lot safer, either – and I said so in so many words. I am also hearing from reliable sources that despite a smoother registration process, the TWIC cards are still not being accepted or recognized universally in this country. The last letter is from someone who isn’t necessarily happy with last week’s article. It wouldn’t be a Friday unless someone was mad at me. Read on:

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J. Keefe, Frankly, I didn't have a hard time getting my TWIC and the folks where I went were Ok too. The whole thing took about 8 weeks. However, 1st, I find your TWIC story pointless. As you said very briefly, YOU were able to avoid the rush and go long after the rest of had to go to meet deadlines. The constantly-sliding-TSA Deadline, the various employer demanded deadlines, the USCG demanded deadlines if one wanted a renewal, etc. 2nd, the TWIC is pointless; it should never been conceived and we shouldn't have to bear the cost so the Congressman in whose district they are produced can benefit himself. 3rd; I was surprised a mariner chose to be a cheerleader for TWIC. I know, it was your experience and you did your best Howard Cosell - "Telling it like it is". I'd let them rehabilitate their own reputation. Cheers, J. Fuller MarEx Editor’s Remarks: I had fun with the article. I knew that I would write the piece when I started the process and the fact that I managed to combine the effort with my vacation (much to my wife’s chagrin) and a glass of wine during the copyedit function made it that much more enjoyable. I didn’t “cheerlead,” but I certainly did tell it like it was. In that respect, the article was not pointless. What it did accomplish was to elicit several opinions, one of which questions the need for the credential and also expresses distaste at the cost of a politically engineered protocol.