A top U.S. Coast Guard official said at a recent congressional oversight hearing that the Coast Guard “has not been aggressively enforcing the compliance” of vessel response plans filed under federal Salvage and Marine Firefighting (SMFF) regulations. The rules, derived from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, are meant to prevent a worst-case discharge resulting from fire or explosion aboard a vessel.
“The shocking admission by the Coast Guard that it cannot, and is not, enforcing its own marine firefighting rules should be a warning to all ship owners, P&I insurers and legal teams,” said Nicholas Nedeau, CEO of Rapid Ocean Response Corporation (ROR). “This is a disaster just waiting to happen and insurers should insist upon a dedicated network of fire-response vessels—instead of taking their chances on the current and risky ‘vessel of opportunity’ approach to emergency response.”
“With the Coast Guard now admitting it doesn’t enforce its own SMFF regulations, the financial and legal risk to vessel owners and P&I insurers may be much higher than anticipated,” added Ryan Gilsenan, a maritime legal expert at Womble Carlyle in Charleston. “As an advocate for ship owners and operators, I am particularly concerned that if the current vessel response plans—although seemingly compliant on paper—result in an unduly delayed response, then the ship owner could be subjected to punitive damages, fines and other penalties for failure to comply with the SMFF regulations. A violation of regulations is a strict liability offense regardless of whether it was done so negligently, unknowingly or willfully. If this is the case, the responsible party may no longer enjoy limited liability under OPA 90.”
At a May 3 public hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy, lamented that the Coast Guard doesn’t have resources to enforce its own rules. Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., asked Thomas why vessel insurers don’t require that “the planning criteria really be performance criteria to save their asset?”
Adm.Thomas said, “I think one of the reasons, and I think that most of the panel members here would agree, is because the Coast Guard has not been aggressively enforcing the compliance.”
Congressman Hunter and ROR CEO Nedeau said the salvage industry doesn’t have dedicated vessels in place to respond in a timely manner to offshore fires. Hunter pointed out that when the 360-foot Grey Shark Motor Vessel caught fire off of New York Harbor in 2015, it burned for four days.
Rep. Hunter said, “The salvors didn’t put the fire out in the ocean, they brought it all the way back as it burned and then the New York Fire department put it out at the dock like they put out a house fire.”
Ships carryin petroleum and other flammables—not to mention toxins, dangerous chemicals, spontaneous combustibles and even nuclear materials—pose a fire risk to Americans and the coastlines of major U.S. cities, according to a year-long assessment by ROR. The release of harmful radioactive materials and toxins into the air and sea, or a catastrophic oil spill after a ship fire, may be more possible than one might think because the U.S. Coast Guard has failed to enforce basic firefighting regulations since 2009.
ROR noted that local tug boats are typically the only existing response vessels. They are usually not licensed for offshore operations, are often unavailable to respond because they are under contract to perform other jobs, and their crews are typically not certificated with the proper mariner licenses to operate offshore. Additionally, these tugs often are not located near their designated port when offshore accidents occur. Outside most major U.S. ports, there’s effectively a giant dead zone with no emergency fire coverage from about 3 miles to 50 miles from land.
“If a fire were to break out today just a few miles off the coast of most metropolitan areas in the U.S., it could take days for fire rescue to come,” Nedeau said. “The consequences for the American population—and the insurance industry—are alarming.”
The Rapid Ocean Response Corporation said its solution would include building a fleet of 20 firefighting response boats and deploying them along the coastline of the continental U.S. to provide rapid firefighting services to commercial vessels operating within 50 nautical miles of the U.S. coast – as the controlling SMFF regulations require. These “firetrucks of the sea” will be operated by pilot groups and commercial boat operators who will form a dedicated network of responders capable of quickly delivering firefighting teams and fire suppression equipment to a vessel in distress—within the strict timeframes required by the Coast Guard and the Code of Federal Regulations.
Today, ROR’S high-speed offshore firefighting vessel, the Fort Ripley, stands at the ready. Stationed in Charleston Harbor, the 64-foot state-of-the-art fire response boat can travel at a top speed of at least 30 knots with a range of 500 nautical miles. The Fort Ripley features a 4,000 gallon-per-minute foam fire-fighting system and is Coast Guard-certificated for a 12-person response team plus crew. It also houses a breathing apparatus recharging system for both fire and dive equipment. According to ROR, if the Coast Guard enforced the rules, the Fort Ripley and vessels just like it, built and provided by ROR, would be the most logical vessels to respond rapidly to an offshore fire in Charleston, Long Beach and other major ports and population centers around the U.S.
“The Coast Guard and interested parties should not wait for a catastrophe to do the right thing,” Nedeau said. “Tugboats are slow and built for towing, and the safety of the public demands a better firefighting solution.”