It happened, coincidentally, during the longest government shutdown in history, from December 2018 to January 2019, when the nation’s essential employees were either furloughed or working without pay. Three of those employees – chief warrant officers Dan Reed, Chris Keister, and Derek Shay, marine inspectors with Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles/Long Beach – were at work at the sprawling port complex at San Pedro Bay, conducting a routine inspection of a container ship whose operator had alerted them to several fractures in its structure.
The inspectors found more than a few fractures – about 40 cracks in all, throughout the ship’s structure, that had to be repaired. “Our job,” said Reed, a senior marine inspector, “is to ensure that it is compliant with U.S. Code and Code of Federal Regulations regarding all aspects of safety, construction, and security.” Repairs to the container ship – under the supervision of Coast Guard marine inspectors – were conducted over a period of two weeks.
Verifying a vessel’s compliance with laws and regulations is complicated. According to Reed, he and other marine inspectors are often referred to as “bag carriers,” because of the satchels they lug around containing volumes of applicable references – regulations, codes, and specifications – as well as inspection and safety equipment. “We inspect everything from the chemical composition of the steel to the procedures of the welding repairs to the qualifications of the welders themselves – a cradle-to-grave evaluation of the vessel,” Reed said. Usually, such detailed analysis of structural steel, including its composition and strength, is conducted by a class surveyor, certified to oversee the work of steel mills.
When Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz delivered his annual State of the Coast Guard address at Coast Guard Base Los Angeles/Long Beach on March 21, 2019, he called out Reed, Keister, and Shay by name: The container ship they’d inspected was holding nearly a million gallons of bunker oil, he said, which, given the fractures they discovered, posed a threat to the vessel’s integrity and the environment. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, operating side by side in San Pedro Bay, are the two busiest container ports in the United States and form the eighth-largest port complex in the world. Last year, more than 17 million containers – in shipping parlance, 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs – passed through L.A./Long Beach, and more than 3,800 vessels of all types visit the ports annually.
“But the tons of cargo moving through these ports are only one part of the story,” said Schultz. “Our nation’s economy relies on the safe, secure, and free flow of goods into our ports and on our nation’s waterways. More than 90 percent of trade into and out of America is conducted on ships.” Overall, the Marine Transportation System – the inland and coastal waterways and infrastructure, such as ports, through which maritime commerce travels – contributes more than 23 million jobs and $4.6 trillion annually to the U.S. economy.
Reed, Keister, and Shay are among the 671 Coast Guard marine inspectors who form the first line of defense for this system. Marine inspectors are responsible for inspect-ing U.S.-registered passenger, cargo and fishing vessels; foreign-flagged vessels that call at U.S. ports; mobile offshore drilling units; towing vessels; and barges carrying hazardous cargo. At the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Reed and other inspectors maintain a demanding schedule, conducting an average of 10 vessel inspections a day, while another group of facilities inspectors ensure the safety of container yards, oil terminals, passenger ferry terminals, and other installations.
Marine Safety is one of the Coast Guard’s lesser-known missions, but as the economic numbers alone indicate, it’s important – essential – work. And it grows more challenging every year.
Vessel Safety: A Public/Private Partnership
The Coast Guard’s authority to conduct inspections and board all vessels in U.S. waters is assigned under Title 14 of the U.S. Code, and can be traced back more than a century-and-a-half to the Steamboat Act of 1852. Congress, which had been reluctant to pass laws interfering with the growing steamboat industry, was finally compelled to act after boiler explosions, fires, and collisions continued to kill and injure crewmembers and passengers aboard the growing fleet of U.S.-flagged steamboats. Responsibility for inspection and enforcement was assigned to the Treasury Department. In 1942, when the government reorganized to conduct World War II, the organization that carried out these tasks – the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation (BMIN) – was transferred to the Coast Guard.
After the war, the Truman administration decided to keep the inspection function with the Coast Guard for a number of reasons: The service had performed well during the war; the inspection function meshed well with other Coast Guard missions, such as maritime search and rescue; and the service enjoyed a natural affinity and working relationship with the maritime industries – in fact, many marine inspectors had some experience in the merchant marine, where they had acquired practical knowledge of vessels’ vulnerabilities.
The effectiveness of Coast Guard marine inspectors continues to be ensured primarily by this unique relationship between the service and the industries it serves – a relationship built on mutual trust and goodwill. It is, as Reed points out, a cradle-to-grave relationship that often begins before a ship enters service; as early as the design phase of a new vessel, Coast Guard inspectors are working behind the scenes, in partnership with the shipbuilder, to make sure it complies with applicable regulations and is safe for operation. An October 2018 article in the Coast Guard Compass, the service’s official blog, detailed how this alliance worked in the construction of the 850-foot Daniel K. Inouye, a container ship built at Philly Shipyard for the Honolulu-based Matson Navigation Company: Together inspectors and industry members reviewed the vessel’s architectural plans, monitored the laying of its keel, and oversaw the installation of safety and engineering systems.
Container vessels are, understandably, a significant focus for marine inspectors at L.A./Long Beach, but, as Reed noted, “Not every port has every platform, or type of vessel, by any means. Some of your qualifications are specific to the area you’re inspecting in.”
One type of vessel that’s grown in significance over the last decade-and-a-half is a ship that either carries liquefied natural gas (LNG) as cargo or burns it for fuel – or both. New technologies have allowed the United States to explore and extract shale gas at an unprecedented scale, and since 2009, America has been the world’s top producer of natural gas. Two things have happened as a result: Off-loading and regasification terminals – the majority of them on the Gulf Coast – have been built, and continue to be built, to accommodate large LNG carrier ships, and the wider availability of natural gas fuel has led regulatory bodies, including the International Maritime Organization (IMO), to encourage the powering of ships with LNG instead of heavy fuel oil to reduce harmful emissions.
Lt. Cmdr. Dallas Smith, who began his Coast Guard career as a marine inspector at the Port of Houston – the nation’s busiest port overall in terms of tonnage – began inspecting LNG terminals in 2005, a few years before the Coast Guard established its Liquefied Gas Carrier National Center of Expertise (LGC NCOE) at Port Arthur, Texas, to cultivate and disseminate the knowledge necessary to inspect LNG facilities and LNG-fueled vessels. Smith currently serves as the detachment chief for the center, where he supervises a team of LNG subject matter experts who provide technical advice to both the industry and Coast Guard personnel. The center also works to increase the service’s competency and capacity to engage with the LNG industry.
Maritime energy transport is a huge contributor to the U.S. economy, particularly in the Gulf region, and Coast Guard marine inspectors work closely with industry partners. Prior to joining the LGC NCOE, Smith underwent a year of Coast Guard-sponsored marine industry training, an initiative that places service members in the industry for a limited period of time. “It helps the marine inspector identify challenges the industry faces,” said Smith, “and then when you go back to the Coast Guard, it helps build your expertise as well.” Smith spent a year working for Excelerate Energy, an LNG shipping company, and six months with Cheniere Energy, the first LNG exporter in the Gulf of Mexico.
Marine industry training is just one option available to inspectors who want to grow their expertise. The Coast Guard also sponsors graduate school fellowships, to allow inspectors to earn engineering degrees, and other advanced education programs. Most marine inspectors, Smith said, go through one of these programs.
Because newly constructed U.S.-flagged carriers have to be approved and inspected by the Coast Guard, LNG marine inspectors are also involved in shipbuilding. For example, when Bristol Harbor Group conceived the first North American-built LNG bunker barge, it approached the Coast Guard in 2014. Smith and other LGC NCOE subject matter experts helped guide the company through the approval process and begin construction on the barge, named Clean Jacksonville, at the Conrad Orange Shipyard in Orange, Texas. “Marine inspectors and my center of expertise spent time oversee-ing the construction of the vessel, to ensure it met all requirements,” said Smith, “and now she is operating in Jacksonville, fueling the LNG-as-fuel TOTE vessels.”
TOTE Maritime, a domestic shipper, specializes in moving cargo between North America, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. So far, two of its container ships are LNG-fueled – among a total of nine total U.S.-flagged vessels that burn LNG as fuel. Those vessels, along with about 160 foreign-flagged LNG-fueled ships and 600 LNG carriers, operate in U.S. ports.
Smith and his subject matter experts offer training to other Coast Guard inspectors – around 100 to 200 people annually, who sign up to go through the center’s qualifica-tion standard for becoming an LNG marine inspector. The LGC NCOE team also provides technical expertise to both the marine industry and policymakers and Coast Guard Headquarters, and augments other Coast Guard units with qualified inspectors. “We’ve flown to numerous U.S. ports, including America Samoa, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and foreign ports in Asia and Europe,” Smith said. “We travel and conduct inspections for ports that don’t have that expertise.”
The need for LNG inspection expertise, Smith said, is on the brink of a dramatic spike. The IMO’s cleaner-fuel regulations take effect in 2020, which will likely spur continued growth in both LNG-fueled ships and LNG bunkering infrastructure. The world’s first LNG-powered cruise ship, the AIDAnova, was completed last year for Carnival Corporation, and underwent its first inspection at the LGC NCOE. According to Smith, 30 more LNG-fueled passenger cruise ships are either being built or are on order, and a second U.S.-flagged LNG bunkering barge, the Q-LNG 4000, will be delivered in the first quarter of 2020, primarily to provide fuel to cruise operators planning to call at East Coast ports.
Coast Guard marine inspectors have already experienced a considerable increase in demand for their services; in July 2018, the size of the U.S. inspected fleet grew by about 50 percent when the service added 6,500 towing vessels – vessels, 26 feet long or more, that are used to tow other ships or barges – to its responsibilities. The Coast Guard conducted a total of more than 20,000 vessel inspections last year. At the same time, Congress has increased the service’s involvement in ensuring the safety of fishing vessels.
So far, there is no LNG terminal in San Pedro Bay, but Reed and his fellow marine inspectors probably can expect to see an LNG-fueled vessel sometime in the near future. Whether they do or not, they don’t expect their jobs to get easier: The Coast Guard projects that by 2025, the worldwide demand for waterborne commerce will more than double.
“It’s a really important job,” said Smith. Coast Guard marine inspectors work to keep the focus on safety, security, and environmental protection, all without hindering the tremendous economic engine of maritime commerce. “I think the Coast Guard does a good job of balancing those interests,” said Smith. “And I think industry does a good job of communicating with us early and sharing their plans. … We try to work with them the best we can, while ensuring safety and security.”
This article originally appears in the 2020 edition of Coast Guard OUTLOOK, which can be opened using the viewer found below.
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