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After the sinking of El Faro, Coast Guard continues to find ships in substandard condition
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After the sinking of El Faro, Coast Guard continues to find ships in substandard condition

After the sinking of El Faro, Coast Guard continues to find ships in substandard condition
Photo Credit: TOTE

After the sinking of El Faro, Coast Guard continues to find ships in substandard condition

The Coast Guard continues to find ships sailing in substandard conditions, as part of its concentrated inspection effort in the aftermath of the sinking of Jacksonville cargo ship El Faro.

33 people died when El Faro sank in Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015. The tragedy prompted two federal investigations, that have now resulted in dozens of recommendations on how to improve safety at sea.

GALLERY: Tributes to the crew of El Faro

Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy Rear Admiral John Nadeau- who’s leading the Coast Guard’s efforts following a Marine Board of Investigation probe and directives from the Commandant- testified in front of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation today, along with NTSB Board Member Earl Weener. It’s one of the first times the sinking has come in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and Representatives made it clear they expect follow-up and results. 

“This was totally preventable,” says Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who’s the ranking member on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, but was sitting in on the Subcommittee hearing. 

Today’s questioning largely focused on the Alternate Compliance Program. This is a special inspection program used by some commercial vessels that allows Alternate Class Societies, like the American Bureau of Shipping, to perform surveys and related work on behalf of the Coast Guard. The intention is to eliminate redundancies because of overlap between Coast Guard and ACS surveys, while also maximizing resources. 

The Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation’s probe of the El Faro sinking found many problems with ACP’s current application though, including that issues on ships were not being caught, some ACS surveyors were working without a substantial amount of ship-specific training, the Coast Guard was lacking oversight, and communication between involved parties was not always to the level it needed to be, among other things. 

“There are companies who do a good job, and there are other companies- if you pay them- they will certify your rust bucket as seaworthy. Now, that’s just not right,” DeFazio says. 

FULL COVERAGE:The sinking of El Faro

Concentrated Coast Guard inspections of high-risk ACP vessels started during the MBI investigation, and led to some vessels- including El Faro’s sister ship El Yunque- being scrapped because of substandard conditions. Nadeau says they’ve continued concentrated inspections, and they’ve continued finding problems. 

"To determine if these issues revealed in the El Faro investigation are pervasive across the fleet, I directed a team of senior marine inspectors to closely examine more ships currently enrolled in the Alternate Compliance Program, or ACP. We have found additional evidence of breakdowns in the safety framework, and our findings confirm concerns raised in the investigation about the material condition of several other US-flagged vessels,” Nadeau says. 

Nadeau says they’re committed to making changes, but DeFazio questioned if he has the resources he needs. 

“There’s real questions about the Coast Guard- whether their budget is adequate to carry out this very important function. I think it’s not. I think we’ve spread them too thin, and they are relying far too much on Classification Societies without any substantial oversight,” he says. 

Nadeau says they could always do more with more resources, but the central issue is training. He says they need to get the right information on board so they can put the right policies and procedures in place, and that requires a small group of highly trained marine inspectors focused on this issue. 

“The Coast Guard must- and will- restore the safety framework with robust and thorough oversight and accountability,” he says. 

Subcommittee Ranking Member Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) questioned how we got here, noting that there were changes- and some recommendations that weren’t acted on- in the aftermath of the sinking of the Marine Electric decades ago. 

“Bottom line is, why didn’t we get it right in the last 35 years,” Garamendi asked. 

Nadeau believes that, over time, they’ve been pushed to rely more and more on ACSs to do more work. 

“Along the way, I think we’ve lost a little bit of our focus, and we’re doubling down now to get that back,” Nadeau says. 

GALLERY: El Faro’s wreckage

Both the MBI and the NTSB conducted investigations following the sinking. The MBI came out with recommendations, and the Commandant has since issued his directives- ordering changes within what the Coast Guard can control and planning for how to change areas that require a partnership with other players in the maritime industry and government branches. The NTSB issued dozens of recommendations- which will be formalized in a report out in the next couple of weeks- and will lobby various parties to try to achieve their desired changes. The Subcommittee asked for more information to track the progress and status of the recommendations from both reports, as well as details on the ongoing inspections the Coast Guard is conducting. 

Subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) cautioned that lawmakers have to make sure they’re finding fault and putting responsibilities on the appropriate parties. He noted that both bodies found fault with El Faro’s Captain, and his decision to sail toward Hurricane Joaquin. 

“It looks like this was poor decision making that exacerbated physical problems with the ship,” Hunter says. 

Nadeau says training, certification, and related areas were all examined, and both investigations found room for improvement. They continued to expand the scope of the investigation as they uncovered information that warranted it. 

“This tragedy shined a spotlight on failures in the safety framework,” Nadeau says. 

IN DEPTH: El Faro’s black box captures final moments ahead of the sinking

He says there is room for improvement across the board- from the Coast Guard to Alternate Class Societies to the ship owners- but they’re ready and able to tackle the work. 

“At the end of the day, this is about the lives of the men and women who go to sea in support of the nation’s economic prosperity, in support of our military readiness, and in support of our national security,” he says. 

Nadeau says they’re dedicated to honoring those mariners, through achieving real and lasting change.

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She also failed to inform them of the continual bullying and failed to take action on her own to stop the harassment, the document says. “Defendant’s deliberate indifference created a dangerous environment and barred McKenzie’s access to a safe learning environment. As the direct result of Mims’ conduct, McKenzie committed suicide,” the lawsuit alleges. The lawsuit also blames Infinger’s lack of action for the girl’s death. It states she had actual knowledge of the behavior toward McKenzie and failed to train teachers and administrators on gender- and race-specific bullying. Stewart is named in the lawsuit because McKenzie’s family alleges that Mims gave the harassing note of Oct. 24, 2018, to the assistant principal and she did nothing to stop the bullying. “Stewart contacted McKenzie’s family on Oct. 25, 2018, regarding the note,” the lawsuit states. “At that time, plaintiff Janice Adams informed Stewart that McKenzie was being bullied and had been bullied since the commencement of the school year.” Stewart informed Adams that McKenzie would be punished for responding to the note. It was not clear in the filing what the girl’s response was. “Following the phone call with plaintiff Janice Adams, Stewart spoke on a three-way phone call with plaintiff Janice Adams and McKenzie’s mother, plaintiff Jasmine Adams, to discuss McKenzie’s discipline regarding the note,” according to the lawsuit. “Plaintiff Jasmine Adams expressed concern about the bullying, the harassment and the fact that McKenzie was being disciplined by U.S. Jones.” The distraught mother informed Stewart that she planned to contact the State Department about the persistent bullying and harassment. “Stewart asked plaintiff Jasmine Adams not to contact the State Department and stated that U.S. Jones would handle the matter,” the suit says. “However, U.S. Jones did not handle the matter.” The lawsuit alleges that the school system did not adhere to state and federal anti-bullying measures. It claims that all the defendants named in the complaint had participated in the Jason Flatt Suicide Prevention Program, a program by The Jason Foundation designed to provide professional development for teachers and youth workers so they can better identify children at risk for suicide. The foundation was created in 1997 by Clark Flatt after his 16-year-old son, Jason Flatt, died by suicide. The lawsuit also claims the school and district failed to comply with the Jamari Terrell Williams Bullying Prevention Act, which AL.com reported was enacted to strengthen the state’s 2009 anti-harassment law. The act requires schools to define, control, report and stop bullying. The act is named after 10-year-old Jamari Williams, a gifted Montgomery dancer and honor roll student who took his own life Oct. 11, 2017, after being bullied for “being different,” according to the website for a foundation set up in his name. 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