Published: June 7, 2019
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
In a June 7, 2019, notice in the Federal Register the Coast Guard announces a “final rule,” effective July 22, 2019:
“This rule will affect mariners who have served on radar-equipped vessels, in a position that routinely uses radar for 1 year in the previous 5 years for navigation and collision avoidance purposes, and mariners who have taught a Coast Guard-approved or accepted radar course at least twice within the past 5 years. These mariners will no longer be required to complete a Coast Guard-approved or accepted radar refresher or recertification course in order to renew their radar observer endorsements. We are retaining the existing requirements for mariners seeking an original radar observer endorsement and for mariners who do not have 1 year of routine relevant sea service on board radar-equipped vessels in the previous 5 years or have not taught a Coast Guard-approved or accepted radar course at least twice within the past 5 years.” (emphasis supplied)
Your blog editor, who has practiced admiralty law for 28 years and taken and successfully passed a Coast Guard-approved radar endorsement course administered by The River School, is highly concerned about this rule change by the Coast Guard. It dangerously disregards the history of the radar endorsement rule, a rule intended to save lives.
The radar endorsement rule was promulgated in response to the Amtrak Sunset Limited train derailment disaster. On September 22, 1993, at 0245 hours, this passenger train was attempting to transit a railroad bridge over Big Bayou Canot, near Mobile, Alabama. The pilot of the towboat, the M/V MAUVILLA, operated by Warrior & Gulf Navigation, while navigating nearby in fog, did not know where his towboat and tow were on the river system. He thought he was still on the Mobile River and the barges forming his tow had touched up against other barges across the Mobile River.
In reality, his tow had struck the railroad bridge over Big Bayou Canot, with enough force to displace the center span on which the rails were mounted by 38 inches — more than a yard.
Unfortunately, the allision (when a moving vessel strikes a fixed object) of the MAUVILLA’s tow of barges with the railroad bridge was not forceful enough to trigger a track displacement warning to the rapidly-approaching train or train controllers, because the rails only bent, they did not break. So, the electrical circuit comprised by the rails remained intact, and the broken track alarm was never triggered.
Minutes later, the train, traveling at 72 miles per hour, derailed. Forty-two passengers and five crewmembers were killed. Many drowned or died from smoke inhalation. One hundred and three passengers were injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found in its report (pdf copy) among the “Probable Causes” of the casualty was the MAUVILLA pilot had received no formal training on how to use his towboat’s radar:
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable causes of Amtrak train 2’s derailment were the displacement of the Big Bayou Canot railroad bridge when it was struck by the MAUVILLA and tow as a result of the MAUVILLA’s pilot becoming lost and disoriented in the dense fog because of (1) the pilot’s lack of radar navigation competency; (2) Warrior & Gulf Navigation Company’s failure to ensure that its pilot was competent to use radar to navigate his tow during periods of reduced visibility; and (3) the U.S. Coast Guard’s failure to establish higher standards for inland towing vessel operator licensing. Contributing to the accident was the lack of a national risk assessment program to determine bridge vulnerability to marine vessel collision.”
In its report, the NTSB recommended the Coast Guard beef-up its radar training requirements:
“In consultation with the inland towing industry, develop radar training course curricula standards for river towboat operations that emphasize navigational use of radar on rivers and inland waters”
“Upgrade licensing standards to require that persons licensed as Operators of Uninspected Towing Vessels hold valid river-inland waters radar observer certification if they stand navigation watch on radar-equipped towing vessels and to require that employers provide more specific evidence of training.”
Why did the Coast Guard relax the radar endorsement rule? It wrote today in its notice in the Federal Register the rule change was Congressionally-mandated by the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015, which required the Coast Guard to “harmonize the expiration dates of the mariner’s radar observer endorsement with expiration of the mariner’s MMC [Merchant Mariner Credential].”
But, the Coast Guard also wrote its relaxation of the rule was “[i]n response to [President Trump’s] Executive Order 13771 of January 30, 2017,” entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs.” This Executive Order arbitrarily directed federal agencies that “for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination….” So, the Coast Guard “asked the public and each of the Coast Guard’s federal advisory committees for suggestions on Coast Guard regulations, guidance documents, interpretive documents, and collections of information that should be removed or modified to alleviate unnecessary burdens.” (emphasis supplied)
The Coast Guard found requiring licensed mariners to take and pass a radar refresher course every five years “unnecessarily burdensome to mariners who serve in a position that routinely uses radar for navigational and collision avoidance purposes.”
In my view, the fallacy in the Coast Guard’s logic is the pilot of the MAUVILLA would theoretically also have had to “routinely use radar for navigational and collision purposes” in the months or years preceding the Sunset Limited tragedy.
Many professions, include medical, legal, insurance, and law enforcement, require annual or biennial hours of continuing education or recertification in relevant fields to maintain licensure, accreditation, or qualification. That’s not “unnecessarily burdensome,” particularly in a profession where lack of proficiency in equipment operation can result in death.
This is a well-produced National Geographic video on the disaster and its causes: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4i17ve