Growing Up a Little Now

The maritime aspect of the intermodal supply chain – and this had to happen sooner or later – joins all others in terms of regulatory enforcement, prosecution and verifications.

Port Everglades, FL (circa 1982): The Second Mate on the US-flag coastwise tanker “NEVERSAIL” popped up to his cabin after being relieved by the Chief Mate on deck and quickly changed into his running gear. By 1730 hours, he had returned from a brisk 5 mile run along the beach at Fort Lauderdale, showered and changed into some street clothes. Minutes later, he was ambling down to his favorite restaurant for a sandwich and a couple of beers. A little later, with dinner finished and little else to do until his next watch at 2400 hours, he decided to have one more draft.

By 1930 hours, he was back on board. The brightly lit deck of the parcel tanker was a mess. Air-powered pumps were everywhere, siphoning murky liquid off the deck into the cofferdams. Where the decks were finally free of whatever had been spilled, bales of saw dust had been emptied onto the deck as absorbents. At least three Coast Guard marine safety personnel were on board. After determining that at least one of the ballast tanks had overflowed – also spilling gasoline residues onto the deck and sadly, into the water – the Second Mate quickly headed for his cabin to catch a quick three hours of sleep before assuming the next watch at midnight. By that time, the Coast Guard was gone, the discharge operation had nearly been completed and just one tank remained to be stripped.

In the days that followed, little was heard about the incident beyond the word from the home office that the vessel had been issued a “citation,” and the mate on deck at the time of the spill, a written warning from the Master. Pollution, although not in significant volumes, had occurred and the mate on watch had carelessly allowed three “dirty” ballast tanks to overflow for more than five minutes each. When the vessel departed, the harbor was more than a little greasier than before. Everyone kept their job and, properly admonished to be a little more careful next time, they did just that.

Twenty-seven years later, another parcel tanker took arrival at Port Everglades. This ship – a little more modern than the NEVERSAIL – was equipped with mandated segregated ballast tanks, a double hull arrangement and a host of other equipment designed to minimize the vessel’s impact on the environment. A normal discharge operation proceeded until a sudden pressure spike caused the eight inch cargo hose to part. It took the Mate on watch several minutes to stop the pumps as he had been on deck making rounds and away from the control room. Despite his best efforts, the emergency pump stop control on deck did not stop the transfer and only after a 400-foot sprint to the control room was he able stop the pumps. The deck control was later found to be defective.

This time, more than 1,000 barrels had escaped into the harbor and the resulting swarm of responders, P&I representatives and Coast Guard investigators was overwhelming. The event also triggered the automatic collection of urine samples from every member of the crew. Off-duty personnel were roused and quickly found themselves filling little plastic cups under the watchful eye of a strange looking guy who took copious notes. The cleanup ultimately would take more than seventeen hours.

The legal aftermath was ugly. The vessel was issued a number of 835’s, not the least of which was the citation for the unresponsive emergency pump stop station, for which at least two crew members were also cited for failing to (a.) properly test the device and (b.) maintain it in satisfactory condition. More significantly, the Second Mate on this vessel – although not on watch at the time of the incident – was found to be under the influence of alcohol. Upon confirmation of the urinalysis results, the shipping company immediately fired him and the Coast Guard moved to revoke his marine license. It turned out that he had gone ashore after watch and consumed three beers with dinner at his favorite restaurant.

Within weeks, the Department of Justice was closely involved in the matter, with the intent of charging a number of ship’s personnel and the vessel itself with violations of a formerly obscure law known as the Migratory Bird Act, as well as several other statutes, including the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Eventually, two individuals would be convicted and one received a nominal jail sentence.

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Although the two fictional scenarios depicted above vary greatly in severity and their eventual impact on the environment, the probable aftermath of each is probably described with reasonable accuracy. But the second event, occurring in a post-EXXON VALDEZ era and closely following the COSCO BUSAN debacle in San Francisco, produced an outcome which, in all likelihood, can be expected to be repeated over and over again in the future. For better or for worse, the maritime world has joined its intermodal cousins under the increasingly watchful eyes of the various federal, state and international regulatory regimes.

In a letter to the MarEx editor received last week, a knowledgeable reader remarked – in response to a MarEx editorial first put on line on 30 July and some letters from MarEx readers – “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 writer, a former Coast Guard investigator who claims to be intimately familiar with the particulars of the case, makes some interesting points. His full letter can be read in our MAILBAG section of this e-newsletter. His comments mostly go towards addressing mariner’s fears of unwarranted prosecution in the event of a marine casualty and he goes on to say, “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.” Arguably then, our depiction of what might happen in the case of our fictional 2009 incident as described above might be a little over the top. On the other hand, I’m betting that I can find 100 mariners who would claim that it is not.

It can be argued that the regulatory oversight of marine vessels and the people who operate them has lagged behind that which has long been imposed upon the airline, railroad and the trucking industries. If so, those days are clearly over. As someone who last signed articles on a merchant vessel in the mid-1980’s, I can’t even imagine the impact and burden that the collective effect of STCW, OPA-90, ISM, ISPS, TWIC and a hundred other new protocols must have on today’s ships and mariners.

Going to sea has changed forever. Finally, I challenge anyone to tell me that the new, supposedly lucrative salaries being paid to today’s mariners are even close to being equivalent to that which my generation enjoyed (for considerably less hassle on board and ashore) a quarter century ago. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that the maritime industry is having difficulty attracting sufficient talent to spend six months or more away from home in a challenging marine environment. And, it is going to take a good deal more than free Broadband Internet access, satellite communications and the live broadcast of a rugby match for offshore personnel to reverse that trend.

The maritime industry is all grown up now. That much is obvious. With still more regulatory burdens (invasive species/waste water/air emissions, to name just a few) coming down the pike, that process is also far from over. The ultimate net effect of all of it on an industry already reeling from the impact of the current financial crises is unknown. You knew it was coming and now, it is here. – MarEx.

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Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685