Hazard flags over inland waterways

Storm warnings are going up all along America's 26,000 miles of freight-carrying inland waterways. Despite official assurances that all is smooth sailing ahead, barge industry executives aren't the only ones worried that federal budget cutbacks could scuttle the excellent safety record set by twoboat and barge operators. The same concern is being voiced by individuals within the three federal agencies most directly responsible for barge transportation: the US Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The official view put forward by industry and government spokesman is that risks are inevitable when dealing with 20 or 30 giant bulk barges lashed together into tows up to 1,200 feet long, 200 feet wide, carrying 40,000 tons of cargo -- but that the industry's low accident rate proves the risks are being dealt with effectively.

Both industry and government point out that a towboat operator is bound to take all possible measures to handle his tow safely when the total worth of his equipment and cargo can add up to $30 million.

Along with the natural economic incentive to protect valuable cargo and vessels, operators are kept on course by stringent regulations enforced by the US Coast Guard.

But many see storm clouds moving in from Washington. Forecasts point to a doubling in barge traffic over the next 20 that the industry's low accident rate proves the risks are being dealt with effectively.

Both industry and government point out that a towboat operator is bound to take all possible measures to handle his tow safely when the total worth of his equipment and cargo can add up to $30 million.

Along with the natural economic incentive to protect valuable cargo and vessels, operators are kept on course by stringent regulations enforced by the US Coast Guard.

But many see storm clouds moving in from Washington. Forecasts point to a doubling in barge traffic over the next 20 years. Yet over the past four years the Carter administration has exerted steady pressure to reduce spending on various waterways programs.

Coast Guard officers fought Washington-impose cutbacks which reduced their buoy inventories, reduced their ship numbers, dissolved the Towing Industry Advisory Committee, and from July 15 to 25 this year closed down their vessel traffic system (VTS) for New Orleans.

The VTS has been reinstated. A ship collision resulting in a PCB chemical spill when the VTS was shut down may have convinced budget-cutters that this one-way traffic system on the Mississippi is worth its $2 million annual cost.

The Coast Guard also had the cutback on is spare buoy numbers reversed -- and within the next few months hopes to be back to a "safe" level. Legislation is expected to be passed shortly to re-create the disbanded Towing Industry Advisory Committee to provide a channel for regular contact between the industry and the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard officers say they have learned to live with fewer buoy tenders by setting up a priority system for replacing the most important buoys knocked out by high water or collisions. They now rely on towboat operators to report missing buoys -- and warn river users to not to expect the 60 percent of channel buoys lost each year to be replaced as quickly as in the past.

Commander Alexander Tanos, Commanding officer of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office and Captain of the Port of St. Louis, reports no immediate problems for his district, which stretches from St. Paul, Minn., to Baton Rouge, La. But he does wonder about the future saying, "the more density [of shipping] you have, the more increase in hazards."

Army Corps of Engineers officers also see hazards increasing if Traffic increases while budgets are cut. One officer reported that "We've had quite a few groundings . . . some of which might not have occurred if we had been able to dredge as we used to." He and other Army engineers said cutbacks in the $300 million per year dredging program resulted from a combination of factors. Money ran short this year due to higher fuel prices and emergency dredging needed to deal with shoaling caused by ash from Mt. St. Helen and by Hurricane Allen.

Also, state and environmental restrictions have made it more expensive, and in some cases impossible, to find disposal sites for the spoils dredged from rivers and harbors.

Congressman Mario Biaggi (D) of New York, chairman of the House Coast Guard subcommittee, believes that increasing barge traffic poses a major safety problem.

"Barges improperly cared for or improperly operated," he told the Monitor, "have the potential for turning into infernos which are perils to the public." He recognizes that budget cutbacks are popular today, but added that "if there weren't cuts, the elements of safety would be enhance and would be enhanced further with additional funding."

Capt. Thomas Rutledge, chief of operations for the Second Coast Guard District, based in St. Louis, believes that the barge industry has tremendous potential because of its excellent safety record and because "this is one of the few areas where we can greatly improve the nation's transportation resources without great expense."

Currently the industry cites a six-year-old Arthur D. Little study as proof of its safety record. This report focuses narrowly on hazardous cargoes, and doesn't make valid comparisons with other modes of transport, according to Luigi Colucciello, chief of the marine accident division of the National Transportation Safety Board.

One of the Little report's researchers pointed out that barges show a good safety record according to "the human exposure index." Their routes keep them far from major population centers. But he added, "If water pollution is the issue, then barges could be the most hazardous mode."

Industry and government officials agree that great advances have been made in barge safety. Regular Coast Guard inspections of equipment are backed up by powers of boarding and seizure and fines of up to $25,000 along with the far more costly requirement that operators must clean up all spills. More and more barges are being built with double-skin hulls. Increased horsepower gives modern towboats more control in swift currents.

Operators skills have been improved by tough new licensing requirements and the Coast Guard's power to revoke licenses ("which we do every day," said one New Orleans officer.) There have been constant efforts to improve radio communications, training of crews, and navigation aids.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK