WJ Editorial

Shrinking Blue-Water Sector Still Dominates Federal Bodies

It was a significant moment when Brian Curtis, director of the Office of Marine Safety at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), addressed the Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association. It was the first time that an NTSB official had addressed the gathering of barge operators, marine insurers and maritime attorneys.

The audience welcomed Curtis, who was informative, thorough and obliging in his talk and the lively question and answer session that followed. The only point on which he became a bit uncomfortable was when audience members questioned the lack of representation of brown-water members. He admitted that the NTSB’s current board is made up of five aviators and no maritime personnel. Although it has trained maritime personnel in its Office of Marine Safety, these all have a blue-water background.

NTSB is the only federal body authorized to investigate incidents in all five modes: roads, air, rail, water and pipelines. Out of anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 marine incidents that occur in a given year, the board investigates only between 12 and 20.

NTSB investigations can have weight, though. Several attorneys in the audience noted that although the NTSB’s final reports about marine incidents including analyses and conclusions are not admissible in marine casualty cases, preliminary factual analyses and field investigators’ reports may be. So brown-water representation is important because the NTSB’s actions and findings could have far-reaching consequences.

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The lack of brown-water representation at NTSB is not an isolated incident but also occurs in other bodies that deal with maritime matters.

Let’s look at the current membership of the Transportation Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC). The Coast Guard solicits candidates for federal advisory committees like TSAC with notices in the Federal Register, but the selection process is opaque.

Out of 18 current members, only four can be said to represent pure brown-water interests. The others represent blue-water outfits, offshore companies, ports or maritime academies. Among the seven TSAC members who are supposed to represent the “barge and towing industry, reflecting a regional geographic balance,” blue water dominates.

Two represent West Coast offshore companies, one is from a blue-water East Coast tug outfit, one represents a Great Lakes tug outfit, one is from a Houston harbor tug company, one is a maritime attorney who teaches at a blue-water maritime academy, and only one is from a pure inland towing company.

The only reason two of the members from brown water companies are on the committee is that they applied and were appointed as “members representing the general public,” who could theoretically be anyone, not even necessarily anyone connected with the maritime world.

The site Statista, which aggregates information from many official sources, lists a total of 182 U.S.-flagged blue-water merchant vessels as of December 2017, including 65 tankers, 62 container ships, 21 general cargo vessels, 29 roll-on/roll-off vessels, and five dry bulk carriers.

That compares to nearly 5,500 U.S.-flagged towboats and tugs and more than 31,000 barges moving an average of 763 million tons of cargo on the nation’s waterways each year, according to a report released by the Maritime Administration last May, “Economic Contribution of the U.S. Tugboat, Towboat and Barge Industry.”

The tug, towboat and barge industry is the largest segment of the U.S. domestic maritime industry by far, employing more than 33,000 American mariners aboard its vessels.

So why is membership on so many official maritime bodies and boards still skewed toward the shrinking blue-water sector?

Given the overwhelming predominance of the inland towing industry in the U.S. merchant marine, doesn’t it make sense that such bodies should include more members with brown-water experience?