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After inspectors raised concerns, El Faro's inspection protocol was formally investigated

After inspectors raised concerns, El Faro's inspection protocol was formally investigated

After inspectors raised concerns, El Faro's inspection protocol was formally investigated
El Faro's sister ship, El Yunque.

After inspectors raised concerns, El Faro's inspection protocol was formally investigated

El Faro’s sister ship, which had been destined for the Alaskan trade, is instead getting scrapped.

How investigators found “extensive wastage” on board is part of the latest scrutiny a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation is giving the Alternate Compliance Program.

ACP is designed to recognize the work performed by class societies, and prevent duplication with the inspections that would otherwise be done by the Coast Guard. Under this program, class societies are given the ability to perform surveys on behalf of the Coast Guard. In the case of El Faro and many of the vessels under ACP, the class society is the American Bureau of Shipping.

ACP has been frequently questioned through the course of the MBI public hearing sessions. Prior testimony has shown issues with oversight, training, communication, and many other areas of this inspection protocol. All of that has been aired out- and more- during Tuesday’s testimony.

FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking

Coast Guard Chief of Traveling Inspectors Captain David Flaherty says he started an investigation of ACP in 2015, after his staff raised concerns about what was happening.

“Started to generally develop the opinion that there was some lack of understanding both from the surveyor who was representing the approved class society as well as the Coast Guard on the role and application and how an ACP exam is supposed to be conducted,” Flaherty says.

They looked at the program across the board, including inspections, audits, and more.  The traveling inspectors found instances of marine inspectors and class society surveyors also not being aware of, or properly using, certain documentation designed to address any conflicts or gaps in the protocol, called the Supplement, and they were sometimes using a version that wasn’t approved. In 2016, they issued a report recommending changes, although many of those details weren’t discussed during the hearing session, and the report itself won’t be released until the MBI investigation is done.

Flaherty says one of their biggest problems is communication between all of the parties involved.

“Clear communication between the vessel owner/operator, the approved class society, and the Coast Guard is key to the success of this program,” he says.

We’ve heard before that the Coast Guard and class society aren’t usually given the required 14 day notice from the ship’s owner about work on a vessel, so the Coast Guard is not always able to attend. The MBI asked whether there have been safety incidents where the class society didn’t notify the Coast Guard, and there had.

“We’ve also come across indications where the vessel owner/operator was not notifying either the Coast Guard or the approved class society of marine casualties,” he says.

Between the Coast Guard and class societies, there are breakdowns as well- including the class societies not being able to access the Coast Guard’s database of issues on various ships.

He specifically addressed what he called “concerning” comments from prior testimony by an ABS surveyor, who declined to perform a specific pressure test on a boiler component, following a repair. Per ABS guidelines, whether to perform the test is at the discretion of the surveyor. When asked why she didn’t perform the test, the surveyor said she was concerned there would be an unsafe situation because of the age of the boiler. Flaherty says, based on that, he doesn’t believe she understood the true purpose of the test, and that he’s had issues like this with ABS in the past.

GALLERY: Inside the MBI hearing room

In early 2016, traveling inspectors went aboard her sister ship, El Yunque, to do a document of compliance audit, and they found “extensive wastage” on a ventilation trunk as part of five non-conformities and four observations that were issued to TOTE. ABS was tasked to examine the other trunks, and cleared them, according to Flaherty. At an April drydock, when El Yunque was preparing to convert to the Alaskan trade, the Coast Guard found wastage in other vent trunks. The wastage uncovered at the different times were all determined to be long term, and one report from the drydock noted that there had been paint around it.

“In your opinion, the wastage and the deficiencies found in the exhaust and supply trunks in the El Yunque, were they longstanding extending beyond a full survey cycle, or inspection cycle for the vessel,” asked Board Chair Captain Jason Neubauer.

“In my opinion, yes,” Flaherty says.

Ultimately, the El Yunque is being scrapped instead of converted.

There were no inspection reports showing any wastage on El Faro, but investigators continued to push this line of questioning because Flaherty says the vent trunk can be a downflooding risk in the condition they were on El Yunque. We learned through Monday’s MBI testimony that it’s likely flooding started through an open scuttle, but then water continued to come in through the cargo ventilation system.

One of the most “concerning” problems Flaherty says they found on El Yunque actually resulted in the issuance of an “835”, which he described as a last resort measure for major issues. This dealt with a December 2015 inspection which found missing and corroded pipes, as well as problems with the fire suppression system- including sprinklers.

“As the Chief Traveler, my concern and the overall concern is with a company or any company with a Document of Compliance, a commercial vessel operating with a safety management system, and an authorized class society involvement conducting inspections on behalf of the Coast Guard, as well as Coast Guard oversight- this kind of condition or similar condition on other vessels that we’ve found is concerning,” Flaherty says.

Flaherty told investigators he believed that had been missed during prior inspections.

“The problems detected by the Coast Guard in December 2015, were any of those noted in the Grand Bahama shipyard report in March 2014,” asked ABS attorney Jerry White.

“As far as I can see from the ABS class surveyor report, that is not noted. I didn’t see it on that one. So, I would assume it was not caught during that drydock exam,” Flaherty says.

“Well, there’s a timeframe for surveys, correct? So, either it wasn’t caught, or it didn’t exist at the time of the survey, correct,” White responded.

“Well, I would have to say that the fact that the pipe was corroded in a little over a year, I would say that the condition that was identified in December 2015 was not something that occurred in a short period of time,” Flaherty says.

After Flaherty described El Faro’s owner and operator as organizations that weren’t active participants in the audit, but did communicate, TOTE’s attorneys brought back in prior testimony from other inspectors, who described them as a good company to work with who’s vessels were in good condition, considering their age. ABS also pushed back through questioning that showed Coast Guard inspectors were on board when the wastage was found in one trunk, but they didn’t look any further.  Flaherty says that’s appropriate under ACP, because the Coast Guard’s role is oversight.

Neubauer directed extensive questioning toward any shortfalls in the Coast Guard’s role in ACP- investigators have made it clear from the beginning that they’re looking at all persons or agencies involved. Flaherty says they’ve been taking steps recently to focus more attention on older or more at risk ships, but they’re still facing resource, training, and notification issues.

ABS also questioned whether a change to come from this investigations needs to be more detailed guidelines on what exactly the Coast Guard oversight involves, whether there should be more involvement by the Coast Guard, and whether there needs to be an increase in training Coast Guard representatives on ABS survey cycles and procedures.

“Since we’ve engaged over the past year or so, there were two vessels that were brought out of service. There’s a vessel in dry dock right now undergoing extensive modifications due to things that were discovered during the Alternate Compliance exam,” Flaherty says.

He says, especially with keeping up with the Supplement- the documentation that governs any gaps or overlaps in inspection guidelines- the increase in the number of class societies has made this a "burden". There have also been a few cases where vessels are inspected frequently, but it takes the traveling inspectors getting involved for there to be change.

WOKV will continue to follow the MBI, and will bring you instant updates on Twitter.

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