Louisiana Towing Vessel Operator Unhappy with New Coast Guard Regulations

By Bruce Lundegren, Assistant Chief Counsel


While he was not able to attend the Office of Advocacy’s recent regional regulatory roundtables in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Dale Martin of Dale Martin Offshore – a Louisiana operator of tugs, barges, and marine support equipment in the inland and coastal waters of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico – did speak to Advocacy to voice his concerns with the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) new Subpart M regulations, “Inspection of Towing Vessels.”  The new rules, published on June 20, 2016, govern the inspection and operation of towing vessels and establish alternative means of compliance.  However, Mr. Martin finds the rules unduly complex and expensive to implement and self-police, while vessels under similar inspection requirements in the open water are monitored and managed through direct USCG Inspection processes with much less implementation and policing cost.

The new rules provide for the design, operation, and inspection of towing vessels.  It includes two alternative means of compliance.  A towing vessel operator is supposed to have the option of the USCG conducting the inspections of vessels, or the operator can develop a Towing Safety Management System (TSMS), which would involve hiring third-party inspectors who would be acting on behalf of the USCG as an approved inspection party.  However, Mr. Martin has been led to believe that choosing the USCG route is a façade and states that the rhetoric that he has heard directly from the USCG is that they don’t have the man power to conduct the amount of inspections needed, and by choosing that option he will be subject to delaying his certification, furthermore preventing his vessel from working.  In his opinion, the TSMS along with Third Party Inspections has become the only real option.  “Unfortunately the safety management systems are complex programs that require constant input, adjustment, and outside consultants to implement, and will drive the cost of doing business up significantly for small operators such as myself.”  This has left Mr. Martin thinking he has no option other than to pay up and develop the plan.  He also questions the need for the rule, given the relative safety of the marine towing industry, and the intense qualifications in licensing and endorsements that he is already paying for in high mariner cost.

The Coast Guard’s Subpart M rules were mandated by the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2004, which reclassified towing vessels as vessels subject to inspection.  The legislation also authorized the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish requirements for a safety management system to cover the methods of operation and service of towing vessels. The rule also includes provisions for electrical and machinery requirements and for obtaining Certificates of Inspection.  The rule is effective July 20, 2016, except certain existing towing vessels that will have an additional two years to comply with most of its requirements.