El Faro-inspired maritime safety bill clear House Committee

Jacksonville, FL — It’s another step toward boosting safety at sea, as a result of the sinking of Jacksonville-based cargo ship El Faro, which killed 33 people in 2015.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has unanimously passed what they’re calling the Maritime Safety Act of 2018. Lawmakers say they worked in conjunction with the Coast Guard, maritime unions, the NTSB, El Faro’s surveyor the American Bureau of Shipping, and El Faro’s owner TOTE Maritime in coming up with the package of changes, which now heads to the full House.

"The loss of this US-flagged cargo vessel, its 33-member crew ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters in US history," said Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who introduced the legislation.

A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation was convened to investigate the sinking, which happened when the ship encountered Hurricane Joaquin, while heavily loaded and transiting from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. The Board held three two-week public hearing sessions in Jacksonville, resulting in recommendations that were issued two years after the vessel sank. The Coast Guard Commandant then reviewed that report and issued his Final Action Memo last December, outlining changes the Coast Guard could control, as well as ones that required collaboration from other parties.

FULL COVERAGE: The sinking of El Faro

This bill largely reflects what was outlined in the FAM, including steps the Coast Guard says they’re already taking.

One of the notable differences from what is directly included in the FAM- but well in line with what was made clear during the MBI testimony- is an order in the bill that the Coast Guard Commandant determine the time and funding it would take to triple the current size of the traveling inspector staff. Testimony during the MBI hearing showed inspectors were becoming increasingly reliant on third-party surveyors, like the American Bureau of Shipping, and weren't supervising as many inspections, in part because of diminishing resources and in part because of holes in communication between the parties. This was also leading to a drop off in knowledge and experience among the Coast Guard inspectors. The bill further addresses this by instructing the Coast Guard to boost training at many levels, including for prospective sector commanders and inspectors. The training would also be required to be available to third party surveyors that do work under the Coast Guard's Alternate Compliance Program, according to the bill.

ACP is something that was heavily reviewed by the MBI- it's a program that allows alternate class societies like ABS to perform work on behalf of the Coast Guard, in order to avoid duplication of work and maximize available resources. This bill would establish advanced training on oversight of these third parties, which some of the lawmakers involved say is a step in the right direction, although maybe not the full solution.

“I have concerns about the conflicts with these certification societies. You’re out there in the free market, you want to sell your services, I guess maybe you don’t want to be too tough on people, but you know, that’s not the way this should work. So, we need more oversight of those certification authorities, maybe more, maybe some liability or fiscal responsibility in the future, when it’s noted that they passed a ship that shouldn’t have been passed for numerous reasons,” said ranking Committee member Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) during a meeting this week when the bill was passed.

GALLERY: Tributes to the El Faro crew

ACP also features what is called the Supplement, which addresses any area of conflict between guidelines among the different parties, or anything that is left out. Testimony showed the Coast Guard is lagging substantially in keeping various Supplements up to date, with each alternate class society having overlaps which need to be addressed. While the MBI had recommended eliminating the use of supplements outright, the FAM ordered working with the alternate class societies to create one unified Supplement. That is the option favored in this legislation.

DeFazio was among those saying this is positive movement, but far from the end of their work. Committee member Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) noted that with the ask for more work, must come more resources.

“The Coast Guard is, in fact, doing less with less. According to the Marine Board of Investigation report, we now know that the Coast Guard’s internal marine safety and inspection functions was one of those missions that did less with less,” he said.

Funding could dictate some of the equipment changes outlined in the bill. Through this legislation, the Committee would be requiring all personnel on these vessels be outfitted with distress signaling that has location technology. Search and rescue operations following the sinking of El Faro were initially hampered by weather, but even after the skies cleared, crews had difficulty locating any possible survivors in the water.

There was one set of remains located by search and rescue crews, but they did not immediately recover it, because that would have forced them to return to land immediately- and they had just received a report of a possible waiving survival suit, so they needed to search for that possible survivor. While the crew put a locator beacon on the remains, it did not work, and they were not able to locate the remains again. Subject to appropriations, the bill is requiring the Coast Guard Commandant to work on an effective beacon for items that are not able to be immediately retrieved, although the FAM indicated the beacons that were in use at that time have already been phased out for more effective ones.

“If you’re floating in the ocean in 2018, you can find your iPhone, but we can’t find you. We’re gunna change that,” Hunter said.

The weather was a factor leading up to the sinking as well, with testimony showing that the Captain was working off some outdated weather information, because of a one-time glitch in one of the ship's on-board systems leading to a duplicated storm track being used without the Captain and crew's knowledge. Even the other weather packages through this system- the Bon Voyage System- featured data that was hours old, because of the amount of processing and transposing that was done in order to get it to show in map form with overlays. This bill urges negotiations to create rules requiring ships receive "synoptic and graphical chart weather forecasts" in a timely manner.

“The importance of timely weather forecasts sounds simple, but the El Faro crew was making decisions based on forecasts that were many hours old, despite significant changes in the forecasted storm trajectory,” Hunter said.

The FAM found the primary cause of El Faro's sinking to be the Captain's decision to navigate too close to the path of Hurricane Joaquin, although there were contributing factors as well. The FAM says some blame lies on ABS's failure to uncover and fix longstanding deficiencies, the Coast Guard's failure to properly oversee inspections, and TOTE Services' ineffective safety management system.

AUDIO: El Faro's Captain calls in "marine emergency"

The Committee is further seeking to boost transparency, through requiring information on vessel compliance to be documented and available publicly. They also want to require an audit of the effectiveness of safety management plans, with findings and recommendations presented to lawmakers. That report would then become public as well.

The bill is also looking at requiring companies to keep records of incremental weight changes, in order to track those over time. Those records would be kept both on the vessel and on shore. This reflects some concern that was raised over work that was taking place on El Faro, to convert her to the Alaskan trade. There was testimony at the MBI hearings about possible changes in weight distribution as a result of this conversion work, which was not being documented and considered from a stability perspective. Records retention is another concern, since some documents that could have further assisted the investigation in to the sinking were lost on the vessel when it went down.

El Faro had previously undergone a work, which investigators determined with hindsight should have been deemed a "major conversion". That classification would have likely led to the ship being forced in to some more modern safety standards that were in effect in 2005-06 when the work was done. The Commandant ordered a review in the FAM for how the major conversion determination is made and documented, and the Committee now- in this bill- is ordering a similar review and full briefing on the findings.

Some of what is outlined in this bill can be implemented by the Coast Guard, but some would have the Commandant enter in to negotiations with other parties.

First, lawmakers want to require high-water alarm sensors in each cargo hold, with both audible and visual alarms located on the bridge. This reflects findings about the series of flooding which is believed to have taken place on the vessel. In conjunction with the flooding, lawmakers are ordering a review of whether current regulations and rules are effective in addressing openings and closures on vessels, and the impact those have in stability standards. The MBI believes water for in to a cargo area of El Faro through an open scuttle that should have been closed. Investigators think cargo was then able to break loose because of the flooding, potentially damaging the fire system on board and leading to more flooding. Water is also believed to have entered through open vents, which served a dual purpose.

Following the initial flooding and resulting list, investigators believe the Captain overcorrected with ballast and other measures, leading to a substantial list on the other side. From there, the lube oil system lost suction, leading to a loss of propulsion as the hurricane bared down.

Another area that would have to be negotiated is requiring all Voyage Data Recorders- or black boxes- to have an emergency position indicating radio beacon, and to be installed in a “float-free” arrangement, meaning they would break loose from the vessel as the ship sank. El Faro’s VDR went down with the ship, and it took two missions to locate it and a third to recover it, which in the end provided investigators with valuable information about what happened in the final moments on board.

FULL DETAILS: El Faro's VDR captures final moments on board

What the VDR captures is another area of change. Under this bill, lawmakers would task the Commandant to do a cost-benefit analysis on requiring VDRs capture internal ship telephone conversations from both sides, not only from the bridge. While the investigators were able to recover more than a day's worth of audio from the bridge El Faro that had been recorded on the VDR, that audio was only what could be heard from the bridge, so it's unclear what engineers and other parties were saying in conversations with the Captain and the crew who were on watch.

Additionally, following on a recommendation from the FAM, the bill would require the Coast Guard to have “full and timely” access to the VDR data and audio. The NTSB led the missions to locate and recover the VDR, and then held custody of the device. While we have been told the NTSB and MBI worked in close cooperating throughout the fact-finding process, this would codify the Coast Guard’s access to the data.

“The loss of life and the exhaustive investigation that revealed significant safety deficiencies in both the vessels and in those individuals charged in their safe operation should be motivation enough for us to enact this purposeful reforms,” says Garamendi.

While the NTSB and MBI collaborated through much of the investigation, including the NTSB sitting in and participating in the MBI's public hearings, both agencies worked independently on their final reports and recommendations. The NTSB issued its own report late last year, and has since been lobbying for change.

While this bill now heads to the full House, there is no companion in the Senate at this time. Florida Senator Bill Nelson's office tells us they're working on a bill that is even more wide reaching, which deals with NTSB recommendations as well. He intends to introduce that soon, according to his office.

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