When a maritime casualty occurs, vital resources enabled for homeland security missions are diverted, leaving gaps. The cost of response and recovery often exceeds entire federal budgets of agencies we have come to rely on.
Edited 12/20/2014 to update website link.
Shortly after 1:30 A.M. of July 23, 2008, two vessels were transiting the Mississippi River. The Motor Tanker TINTOMARA, a 600-foot tanker was heading down river on a transit that seemed perfect for the early morning sail. The sky was clear with a three-quarter moon, 82 degrees with a light wind and ten-mile visibility. Lighting from the New Orleans Riverfront and two separate spans of the Crescent City Connection Bridges lit the waterway. The transit should have been enjoyable; the type of sail that sailors reminisce about years later.
Yet, another vessel, the MEL OLIVER, a Towboat pushing a loaded barge with over 400,000 gallons of No. 6 oil was heading upriver in the path of the tanker. The bridge crew on the TINTOMARA called out a warning via the radio to the smaller vessel. The MEL OLIVER seemed to ignore the call and continued into a deadly path. The U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) tasked as the traffic controller of the busy waterway also called out to the Towboat, “Mel Oliver, Come in, cap! You’re crossing the bottom of a ship coming at you!” The towboat once again ignored the call and took aim at the larger ship.
The TINTOMARA had few options given the location of this unfortunate meeting on the water. Given the strong current at that location and two bridges ahead, there were two choices: run the vessel aground to avoid the towboat and bridges, or stay on track and wish for the best. The vessel characteristics of the TINTOMARA show the ship operates on a single shaft and propeller. If the Pilot of the larger ship opted to slow down, they would lose bare steerageway, the needed force against the rudder to allow controllability. Putting the engines into reverse with a single screw ship risked loss of control, a grounding or an allision with one of the two bridge spans ahead. The Master continued ahead. Moments later, the TINTOMARA called the Coast Guard VTS, “This ain’t good, man! … We just took his tow. The barge is right in front of us and we’re running it over!”
The tanker hit the loaded barge and literally cut it in half. As the oil was quickly spread by the rapid current, the two oily hulks of steel rested near the first span of bridges. The investigation shows the TINTOMARA was in good mechanical and electrical condition. There were no competency issues with the crew. In the case of the MEL OLIVER, the Pilot of the towboat was unlicensed.
Another maritime tragedy occurred 15-years earlier when the pilot of the towboat MAUVILLA hit a rail bridge separating the tracks near Mobile, Alabama. Shortly after the strike, the Amtrak “Sunset Limited” plunged into water below killing 47 people. The towboat pilot was unfamiliar with the waterway and became disoriented in the fog. Rather than turn right, he went left. The bridge was seen on the radar; unfortunately, the pilot was untrained and couldn’t discern the radar image on the scope. The loss of life and the economic cost of diverting rail systems, response and recovery cost the U.S. economy millions. It took eight years for the enactment of regulation requiring training and record keeping for towboat pilots.
The MEL OLIVER case shows that there are existing holes in the regulations; in fact, sometimes they are ignored. As it turns out, the same company that operated the MEL OLIVER, DRD Towing had another incident just ten days earlier when the pilot of the RUBY E was also unqualified. In that case, the towboat sunk, again requiring response and a diversion of U.S. Coast Guard assets. Now is the time to amend the existing regulations requiring towboats to “check-in” with the Coast Guard prior to sailing. The Coast Guard operates the Maritime Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database. This information resource provides a detailed listing of mariners and their qualification status. Prior to moving barges with potentially hazardous cargoes on navigable waterways, operators should be held responsible to prove they have a qualified crew.
Hundreds of barges move along our waterways and nearby populated areas each day. As I describe in my book, “Terrorism and the Maritime Transportation System” many times these large vessels carry dangerous caustic chemicals that could kill thousands. The same chemical mixture that killed in 20,000 people in Bhopal, India is moved along our waterways. It’s best to have qualified crews capable of safely handling these vessels.
Whenever there is a significant marine casualty, vital assets normally available to respond to a serious homeland security situation or terror attack are diverted leaving gaps in our national security. According to the Coast Guard, in the case of the MEL OLIVER, there were over 2,000 personnel involved in the operation including the USCG Gulf Strike Team from Mobile, Alabama; USCG District Eight Response Teams; the Coast Guard Cutter Razorbill; multiple 41-foot patrol boats; regular HH-65 helicopter flights; Unified Command Personnel and State and Local response units.
The incident closed 97-miles of the Mississippi River to maritime shipping for six days. When I asked the Coast Guard for an estimated cost to our national economy, I was told the New Orleans Port Authority assessed a national cost of $275 million per day. Over the six-day period, the cost to maritime commerce and response totaled over $1.6 billion; all because one person opted to ignore maritime safety regulations. Let’s put this amount into perspective. Comparing against the 2008 Department of Homeland Security budget, the cost of this one maritime casualty exceeds the following budgets:
- All US Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Interdiction operations ($528M).
- The entire U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety program ($728M), and,
- The entire Federal Law Enforcement Training Center ($274M - effectively trained 60,458 law enforcement agents in 2007)
Our nation cannot afford to relinquish vital resources to protect our national security. Rather than pursue earmarks to support local economies, our elected leaders should come together in a bi-partisan effort and amend 46 Code of Federal Regulations, parts 10 and 12 requiring that mariners acting in Bridge crew positions of commercial vessels check in with Coast Guard or appropriate local port authorities prior to sailing. Will this prevent maritime accidents from happening? No, but it will severely hamper the attempts by unqualified mariners to operate vessels. When local budgets are not lost and resources expended unnecessarily, they are available for homeland security issues.
In the case of the MEL OLIVER, the entire incident was (literally) on the radar of the USCG VTS. While the Coast Guard attempted to intervene and avert a casualty, the towboat pilot ignored the call. Coast Guard and marine patrols cannot be everywhere at every time. Looking back at this case, what if a terrorist group knowing quick intervention is unlikely attempted to duplicate this incident? If the target was a vital bridge or the intent to shut down a navigable waterway, it impacts maritime commerce and our national homeland security posture. Look at the cost. As we’ve seen in recent days, people are nervous about the economy. If a terror incident can shake the economic front, it would also shake the confidence of citizens.
About the Author
Anthony M. Davis is the Founder of the Homeland Security Group and publisher of the Homeland Security Report. Mr. Davis recently published the bestselling book, "Terrorism and the Maritime Transportation System."