Maritime Unions Say Coast Guard Editorial ‘Unfair and Inaccurate’


July 2012

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The SIU in mid-June fired back after an article by a U.S. Coast Guard captain left many in the industry incredulous.


The union posted its own response on June 14 and then, a day later, joined with the American Maritime Officers, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots in sending a related letter to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp. That letter came from the respective presidents of the nation’s major seagoing unions: Michael Sacco of the SIU, Tom Bethel of the AMO, Mike Jewell of the MEBA and Tim Brown of the MM&P.


Both of the union communications said that an editorial by Coast Guard Captain Eric Christensen – from its headline to much of its content – not only didn’t ring true, but also opened the U.S.-flag fleet to unwarranted criticism. Christensen is the agency’s chief of commercial vessel compliance.


In its individual reply, the SIU said Christensen’s article, titled “Sounding the Alarm on U.S.-Flag Compliance,” paints an “unfair and inaccurate picture of the American-flag fleet and its operators. He leads the reader to believe there’s an epidemic of non-compliance by U.S. operators, when in fact the Coast Guard’s own data shows that less than one-half of one percent of American-flag vessels have reportable problems.”


Further, the SIU asserted, the captain’s article “is a blanket indictment that ignores the achievements the U.S.-flag industry has made in training, safety and education. This would be roughly the equivalent of our posting an editorial suggesting that Coast Guard officers are untrustworthy because a single one of them got caught selling mariner credentials.


“Christensen’s paper,” the SIU continued, “cites only one specific recent case – and that one involves a non-union company that is infamous in American maritime circles. (The company isn’t named in the paper but it doesn’t have to be; anyone familiar with that outfit’s “record” knows them by the description.)”


The SIU also pointed out that U.S. maritime unions and American-flag ship operators “share all of the goals Christensen mentions in his paper: safety for the crews, safety for the ships, and safety for the environment. We collectively spend billions of dollars and incalculable man-hours pursuing those goals and have set standards above those set by international conventions.”


Meanwhile, the four union presidents delved into some of the more technical aspects of the original article, including a flagstate control regime (to which the U.S. is not a party) called the Paris MOU. America’s most recent classification by that regime, largely the basis for Christensen’s article, “does not come as a surprise,” wrote the labor officials. “The maritime unions have been advising the Coast Guard for some time that such an outcome would come to pass if steps were not taken to more efficiently administer regulations and correct failures, particularly with non-union companies with historically bad track records on maintenance, safety and regulatory compliance. To place the blame on the shoulders of all American shipowners and crews, however, fails to recognize the true issue and is extremely disingenuous.”


They further reminded the commandant that the Paris MOU “acknowledges that of the 174 vessel inspections of U.S.-flag vessels by its member states, only seven vessel detentions have been recorded. This is hardly an ‘alarming trend’ representative of a significant decline in statutory and international convention compliance….


“We believe that part of the problem lies in the United States regulatory regime that the Coast Guard administers in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act itself. The rulemaking procedures in the Act make it difficult for the USCG to respond to IMO treaty obligations in a timely fashion…. Even simply updating American regulations to conform to international standards can take a considerable amount of time. Changes to the APA are unlikely, making Coast Guard interim guidance and advisory notices critical to bridging the gap until final regulations are promulgated.”


Sacco, Bethel, Jewell and Brown also said that a “resistance” by the agency’s legal division to permitting the Coast Guard to “disseminate non-mandatory advisory notices on international requirements until after regulations are in place, compounds this problem rather than alleviating it. The result is that U.S.-flag ships and operators are left to their own devices in determining how to comply with IMO requirements, thus exposing them to penalties from port state control regimes like the Paris MOU. This is presently occurring with the STCW Manila Amendments related to work and rest hours. Although the new STCW Manila Amendments came into effect January 1, 2012, USCG has not yet promulgated regulations conforming to the international standard nor offered any effective guidance.”


They concluded, “In the future, we would prefer to work together to resolve these issues, rather than have senior Coast Guard officials indict the entire industry because of the bad behavior of a very small minority of bad actors in public…. As always, we remain committed to ensuring that American mariners are the best trained and most professional mariners in the world.”



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