Port in a Storm

When a ship is in distress, others want to help — but not if it's going to cost them a pile of money that they can't recoup. The maritime industry continues to struggle with how to ensure that ships can find places of refuge where they can deal with damage, malfunctions or other emergencies.

Attorney Alfred J. Kuffler, a partner with Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads in Philadelphia, says the problem is "intolerable" and that the United States needs legislation to ensure that ships in trouble have access to suitable facilities. Kuffler spoke at the annual Connecticut Maritime Association conference, which has grown into a top rendezvous for the bulk and tanker industries and related service providers such as attorneys, insurers and financiers.

Kuffler recalled his frustration in seeking a dock where the tanker Athos I could be repaired after its hull was punctured by a submerged anchor in the Delaware River in 2004. It took 10 days before a terminal operator allowed the ship to be moored to a pier for temporary repairs. The Athos I was a relatively minor incident — only about 1,000 tons of oil was spilled — but the consequences of other incidents could be more severe, Kuffler said.

The International Maritime Organization published guidelines in 2003 for places of refuge for ships needing assistance. The U.S. Coast Guard implemented the IMO resolution in 2007. But while the Coast Guard has authority over a stricken vessel, the agency will not force a facility to accept a vessel. The reason: the U.S. Constitution prohibits the taking of property without fair compensation. Facility operators don't want to assume a ship's potential liabilities — a problem that's been aggravated by concerns over weapons of mass destruction.

Kuffler said legislation is needed to give the Coast Guard the authority to put a stricken vessel in a suitable facility. He said that to comply with the Constitution, any legislation would have to provide compensation to the facility, as well as immunity from liabilities that it did not cause. "The present sitation is intolerable, but the shipping community, in conjunction with the Coast Guard, can solve this problem," Kuffler said.

Want to comment? Send an e-mail to Joseph Bonney at jbonney@joc.com.

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