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

Jacksonville, FL — 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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