Operation Big Tow confirms 99% of towing vessel operators properly licensed

NEW ORLEANS – The Eighth Coast Guard District recently completed Operation Big Tow, a three-month long effort designed as a result of a collision between a cargo vessel and a loaded oil barge on the Mississippi River that spilled more than 282,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil to spill into the river. Operation Big Tow was designed to ensure vessel operators were properly licensed for their respective vessel’s size, type and route.

An initial investigation into the July 23, 2008 collision that closed nearly 100 miles of river near New Orleans revealed that a crewmember operating the Mel Oliver, an uninspected towing vessel (UTV) pushing the barge was improperly licensed. UTVs are towing vessels 26-feet or longer and must be under the direction of a licensed master.

In November, District Eight launched Operation Big Tow, which had the primary purpose of ensuring UTVs were operated by individuals with the proper licenses and endorsements through spot checks and safety exams.

“The Mel Oliver collision cast doubt over whether UTVs were under the command of properly licensed operators,” said Capt. Verne Gifford, chief of the Eighth Coast Guard District Prevention Division. “Operation Big Tow was necessary to restore confidence in the towing vessel industry.”

The Coast Guard used three tactics to verify licensing compliance: examinations of vessels, contacting vessels by radio and mobile phone, and auditing the entire list of a company’s operators.

“The desired outcome of the operation was to look into licensing issues needed to help get qualified pilots on the river thus making the river safer,” said Lt. Cmdr. William Daniels, with the Eighth Coast Guard District Waterways Management.

In an effort to minimize interference with day-to-day commercial operations, examinations were conducted at locks, where it was possible to get on the vessel while it was waiting to transit through. Therefore, the only vessels delayed were those with operators who had licensing deficiencies.

The Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Center’s (VTC) were also used to help expedite the operation. These VTCs operate in areas of heavy vessel traffic, and the VTCs used cameras, radar and automatic plotting systems to identify and contact every UTV in an area.

Any towing vessel in the area was contacted using VHF radio by the VTC, and then referred to a call center. When the vessel operator called they were asked about licensed mariners onboard and questioned about their licenses. A response team that included a marine inspector and/or an investigator was on call to go aboard any towing vessel that could not respond properly to the questions. These call outs allowed the Coast Guard to contact every vessel navigating on the Mississippi River through key areas.

In total, more than 3,400 licenses were reviewed and only 43 licenses were found to have issues. This included expired licenses and lack of proper endorsements.

“The high percentage of vessels in compliance with Coast Guard standards is not surprising. Industry members have always tried to do the right thing, ensuring that their vessels are operated safely by licensed operators,” explained Lt. Cmdr. Robert Keister, chief of vessel and facility inspections for the Eighth Coast Guard District.

Coast Guard Sector New Orleans was the first to participate in Operation Big Tow, conducting a seven-day operation Nov. 14 -20, 2008. All Sectors in the Eighth District followed shortly after. Collectively, the seven Sectors that make up the Eighth District were able to thoroughly check that vessels navigating in or through the district were operated by properly licensed personnel. Company audits were conducted when the Coast Guard requested a company to voluntarily provide a list of all licensed operators for Coast Guard verification of licensing compliance.

Among the various discrepancies found were a number of captains who do not posses a Western Rivers endorsement. This license endorsement gives authority to operate on the Mississippi River and its tributaries South Pass and Southwest Pass. Vessel operators without this endorsement were referred to the Regional Exam Center. Vessels were not permitted to continue transiting on the river until qualified personnel were made available to man the vessel.

“We and our partners are committed to ensuring that the mariners are licensed while ensuring the safety of the mariners,” said Daniels. “Although focus of the operation began as licensing issues, safety exams were added to watch against potential hazards on the river.”

The examinations also allowed the Coast Guard to gauge compliance with key safety equipment requirements. Safety checks ensure towing vessels are equipped with appropriate operator licenses, an original certificate of documentation, a life ring buoy, appropriate life jackets, and appropriate fire extinguishers.

All totaled, nearly 99 percent of vessels were operated by properly licensed operators. Using information gathered from this operation, The Coast Guard is directing efforts toward better identifying the 1 percent that are not in compliance.

“This operation highlighted how we can work with industry to minimize impact to commerce while maximizing the positive effect on safety. It is a first step, and we are prepared to continue sending the message that non-compliance doesn’t pay,” said Gifford.

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