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Not Enough or Too Much: the Coast Guard’s response pendulum swings again.

For those who may have missed it, a tug with a light 66,000-barrel barge alongside (stern-first on their starboard side) was outbound from the Sprague terminal on the Fore River in Portland, Me. on August 20th when they “struck” the Casco Bay Bridge at around 7:00 am. This allision resulted in no damage to the bridge, tug or barge, no fuel in the water, or in injuries to anyone. It may possibly have scuffed the paint on the barge a little, but even this is not certain. To quote the article in the Portland Press Herald, “The barge scraped against the fender, which is made of Kevlar, a strong and slippery material. It glided along the fender without enough force to cause it to compress into a secondary shock absorber, Knowles said. “It was just a glancing blow, skidded right off them,” he said. “That happens a lot. They get talking or the wind comes up. That’s what those fenders are for.” There are minor factual inaccuracies in this article, but you get the general idea.

The incident did, however, result in what could accurately be called an unnecessary over-reaction by the Coast Guard. “When we hear things like this happen, we think worst-case scenario,” said Coast Guard Lt. Lisa Tinker, command center chief for northern New England. “The first thing we look up is how much can this vessel carry, and we have to assume that’s how much they have on board.” read the article. Why do they have to assume this, especially when it should have been immediately obvious that it wasn’t the case, and is that really the best approach to take? A separate Coast Guard press release read “We take these reports especially serious and thoroughly investigate them quickly,” said Capt. Jim McPherson, commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. “We were concerned about the integrity of the tug and barge, and respond based on the maximum pollution potential of 300,000 gallons. Protecting our marine environment in New England is one of our most important missions.”  The television news coverage shows how clueless the media can be, and how this only contributes to the politician’s and public’s ignorance of marine transportation and safety, even in towns and cities with close ties to maritime commerce. If the statements are taken at face value, including those from the authorities, then everyone is to believe that an enormous catastrophe was narrowly avoided. Dramatic-sounding, yes, but not at all accurate.

Even though the empty barge had pumped off all of its cargo of jet fuel and was outbound, their assumed worst-case scenario was for that of a total release of cargo from a fully-loaded inbound barge, plus the barge’s house-service fuel tank (for the generators and pumps) and the maximum amount of fuel oil that could possibly be carried aboard the tug itself. So it was presumed that there was the potential for a spill of 300,000 gallons even though there was absolutely no evidence to support that conclusion. Local knowledge possessed (we hope) by the authorities should have immediately indicated to them that any outbound traffic would almost certainly be “empties” on their way back south. Caution would dictate that this be confirmed by the Coast Guard, which could have easily been done via radio or cell phone with the tug. In addition, given the bridge’s close proximity to the Coast Guard base in South Portland, they could simply have taken a quick look out the window with a pair of binoculars to satisfy themselves that the barge was empty. So the actual worst-case scenario was just the barge’s tank bottoms, their house-service fuel tank, and the fuel oil aboard the tug. And for all of it to have spilled into the river would have required that the hulls of both the tug and barge be opened up from stem to stern on both sides which, aside from being physically impossible under the circumstances, would have caused them to immediately sink near the scene. That, presumably, would’ve been a dead giveaway that something was seriously amiss. The Coast Guard sortied the following assets in response: a 26-foot aids-to-navigation (AtoN) boat, a 47-foot motor lifeboat, a 140-foot ice-breaking tug, and a Falcon jet. It’s fair to ask whether this impressive deployment of Coast Guard equipment and manpower was expensive overkill. Sending a single boat to check the bridge out and then interview the tug captain should have been enough, unless something else was discovered in the process.

There are many external factors (outside of some kind of control or equipment failure, or basic operator error) that can contribute to a tug or barge making contact with a bridge’s fendering while transiting through a draw, with the relative narrowness of some draws being just one. The winds can blow from any direction, and can gust and shift without warning. Many bridge draws are poorly aligned in relation to the axis of the channel, or to other nearby bridges, or both. At night, some are inadequately lit to facilitate a safe passage. Currents often don’t flow straight through the bridge draws, instead setting to one side or another. New York Harbor’s Jamaica Bay Subway Bridge comes to mind as a good example of a bridge affected by most of these conditions. Then there are particular bridges that often refuse to open as required by regulation, forcing the tugs to “tread water” until they decide to open. Some tugs and/or barges have poor handling characteristics, or the tug may be underpowered and overmatched for the job expected of it. Over the years, the barges have gotten steadily larger while the bridge draws remain the same, although the Casco Bay Bridge was a notable exception to that trend in that it was a significant improvement over the old Million Dollar Bridge. Poor visibility from the tug’s control stations can also be an issue. Or it could simply be just a case of human error. Bridge transits with barges in any configuration (pushing, towing alongside, or towing astern) are one of the most difficult skills of all to master. And some draws may have fendering that’s inadequate for any contact at all, regardless of the cause.

This so-called “accident” appears to be nothing more than a perhaps unintended but nonetheless routine bounce-n-skid through a bridge with no damage caused. Something so common and unremarkable as to barely warrant even a mention between fellow crew members, let alone a full blown federal investigation. As part of this investigation the tug’s master had to submit to a blood and alcohol test as per 46 CFR § 4.05-12, which is tied to the fact that any unintended strike of a bridge qualifies as a marine casualty and must be reported immediately as per 46 CFR § 4.05-1(a)1. Again, this all seems excessive. There exist many bridges that are challenging enough to go through that, even under good conditions and in broad daylight, the person at the wheel knows that it’s a coin toss as to whether or not the passage can be made without making any contact with the fendering. This falls into the “unintended but not unexpected” gray area that the regulations don’t address. How about some reasonable discretion here?

It would be a lot easier for mariners to swallow, and would surely improve the agency’s standing in our eyes, if the Coast Guard would also show the same level of concern for making the bridges themselves safer to go through. Better lighting, retro-reflective markers, windsocks at both ends of the draw, and some occasional enforcement of bridge operating and maintenance regulations would go a long way towards measurably improving safety at a minimal cost. Unfortunately, more of the Portland-type response is probably what we can all expect from now on since the M/V Cosco Busan allided with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last year and fouled the shoreline all over the Bay Area with bunker fuel. In that instance the Coast Guard was criticized for under-reacting and not keeping the public properly informed, so now the pendulum swings hard over in the other direction. This type of heavy-handed reaction will subject towing vessel masters, mates and pilots to more unneeded stress while offering a highly questionable public-safety improvement in return.

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