The towing and barge industry rarely gets much attention from general news outlets except when a spill or accident happens. Lately there have been a few exceptions to that rule, such as during debates about infrastructure spending by Congress. This neutral or positive coverage has happened thanks largely to the ceaseless behind-the-scenes efforts of waterway advocacy groups like The American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council Inc.
But there is a bigger story that needs media exposure: the steady reduction in crew fatalities and pollution incidents on towboats over the years.
The Coast Guard-AWO Safety Partnership’s Annual Safety Report, compiled by the Coast Guard Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis, recently released figures for calendar year 2021. The report showed two fatalities, the lowest number of deaths ever recorded by the partnership, which began tracking industry safety statistics in 1995. One was attributable to a fall into water, and the other was caused by crushing.
The report also shows that 4,259 gallons of oil were spilled from tank barges in 2021, the lowest spill volume recorded by the safety partnership since 2010. That may sound like a lot by itself. But put in context, the tank barge spill rate for 2021 was only 0.1 gallons of oil, or less than one pint, per million gallons transported.
Of course, the goal of the industry remains zero spill incidents and zero fatalities. The steady improvement in safety and environmental responsibility is no “man bites dog” story, so it hasn’t gotten headlines. The decreases represent extraordinary and ongoing efforts, however, and should be acknowledged.